Tag Archives: J.O. Taylor

The Grim Game (1919, Irvin Willat)

Some of The Grim Game is spent on Harry Houdini’s illusions. The film puts Houdini, playing a reporter, in various tight spots where he has to escape from one thing or another. By the third act of the film, Houdini’s escapes aren’t even the focus–though there is a fantastic mid-air plane sequence. The plot gets in the way.

The film gives the illusion of great complexity. Houdini’s rich uncle (Thomas Jefferson in the film’s only weak performance) is an awful miser and is planning on shutting down Houdini’s newspaper (Houdini’s the star reporter). So Houdini hatches a plan to save the paper. It requires Jefferson to go missing; of course, all the good guys will know where he’s gone.

This development comes after Game spends a lot of time setting up Jefferson, setting up Arthur Hoyt as his doctor, Ann Forrest as his ward (who Houdini romances but who Hoyt wants to marry for her eventual fortune). Most of this setup is a waste of time (especially in the case of Mae Busch as a cabaret star who gets involved). Walter Woods’s script meanders, oblivious to its lack of suspense.

Obviously, things go wrong–way too quickly–and Houdini ends up in jail. Director Willat does all right with the action, but he has no time for anything else. He rushes, almost nervous about giving away too many clues to the eventual mystery. Except, without clues or questions, the mystery resolves lamely.

Hoyt’s excellent, Forrest’s likable (even if she barely has anything to do–it’s not even clear she knows Hoyt is a suitor). Houdini’s confident and thorough. The film never takes itself too seriously, which is swell, except that lack of self-interest hurts once it gets to the “who cares” resolution to the mystery. It needed a better script. And more Houdini escapes.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Irvin Willat; screenplay by Walter Woods, based on a story by Arthur B. Reeve and John Grey; directors of photography, Frank M. Blount and J.O. Taylor; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Harry Houdini (Harvey Hanford), Ann Forrest (Mary Cameron), Arthur Hoyt (Dr. Harvey Tyson), Augustus Phillips (Clifton Allison), Tully Marshall (Richard Raver), Mae Busch (Ethel Delmead) and Thomas Jefferson (Dudley Cameron).



lauren-blogathon

THIS POST IS PART OF THE THE SILENT CINEMA BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.

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The Son of Kong (1933, Ernest B. Schoedsack)

King Kong opened in April 1933, The Son of Kong opened for Christmas 1933. The rush shows. The special effects really suffer–for whatever reason, when Robert Armstrong and Helen Mack are added to the little Kong’s shots, it’s fine, but when little Kong is added to Armstrong and Mack’s… it’s not. It’s like the focus is off on the rear projector.

But the story suffers more. Son of Kong runs a lean seventy minutes, with almost forty-five gone by before the little Kong shows up. That pacing is actually fine. It gives the movie time to catch up with Armstrong and skipper Frank Reicher, get them out to sea in a new story and then introduce the girl. There’s got to be a pretty face. And when Helen Mack shows up, Son of Kong takes a decidedly darker turn. It’s a downer–Mack’s stuck on a tiny port village with no prospects thanks to an alcohol father (a disturbing Clarence Wilson). Armstrong runs into an old acquaintance, who ties into the first movie, played by John Marston. Marston’s also playing a down and out drunk and the whole film sort of wallows in despair.

It opened with a fine comic sequence with Armstrong avoiding process servers, which mixed the character’s despair with being an amusing film experience… but later on, writer Ruth Rose apparently didn’t want to curb it. The scenes at the port are so depressing, it’s fully believable when Armstrong and Mack soon connect onboard the ship–even though their fortunes aren’t much better. At least they aren’t in that port anymore.

The relationship between Armstrong and Mack is Son of Kong‘s best feature. The sequel’s entirely superfluous and, at its best, is a simply another seventy minutes the viewer gets to spend with Armstrong. Here he gets to develop the character free of narrative constraint and his performance is excellent. Reicher also gets a lot more emphasis and he’s great too. But with Mack, Armstrong’s performance comes alive. There’s nuance and subtlety to their interactions, something more sublime than the film could ever hope for. It doesn’t hurt she’s a perfect counterpart to him, down to her voice.

When the film gets to the island and little Kong and the assorted monsters, it does all right for quite a while. It’s all rapidly paced, but it gets into the kinship between Armstrong and the little Kong, which is affecting thanks to Armstrong’s performance.

Then the movie ends. Had it gone on for longer–and I’m not even talking about a decent Armstrong and Mack kiss–I’m just talking about some more content, it would have been much better. Because the entry to the island, the set-up there, is all fantastic–and then it stops. Instead of the bigger sequel of today, it’s the smaller sequel–the pre-Empire Strikes Back sequel. When Skull Island sinks at the end, it almost seems like the filmmakers are ruling out any further, even cheaper returns… and it’s damn unfortunate this one wasn’t given more of a budget. As an inessential sequel goes, The Son of Kong has a lot going for it and it’s a shame it wasn’t able to fully realize it.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack; written by Ruth Rose; directors of photography, Edward Linden, J.O. Taylor and Vernon L. Walker; edited by Ted Cheesman; music by Max Steiner; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham), Helen Mack (Hilda), Frank Reicher (Englehorn), John Marston (Helstrom), Victor Wong (Charlie, the Chinese Cook) and Ed Brady (Red).


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King Kong (1933, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack)

King Kong is a perfect film. I don’t think I’d realized before. It’s always hard to talk about films like Kong, influential standards of American cinema. I want to talk about how its structure still sets the tone for modern films–the gradual lead-in (it’s forty-some minutes before Kong shows up), the non-stop action of the second half, how establishing characters well in the beginning means they can go without dialogue for twenty minutes and still be affecting. Or the special effects. I’d love to talk about the special effects, like how I’d never noticed the absolutely brilliant sound design–the most effective stop motion moments are the ones with the people Kong interacts with. Murray Spivack’s sound brings them fully to life–best evidenced as Kong’s rampaging through the village and attacks a house. It engenders concern for the inhabitants, who must have been six inch dolls.

But Kong isn’t a perfect film for its impact. It’s perfect because of itself. The film opens with the scene on the docks, quickly establishing the peculiar tone of the first half. Everyone sort of takes Robert Armstrong’s gung ho filmmaker with a grain of salt. They’re bemused by him. Armstrong’s perfect for the role, big and amiable, it’s hard to be mad at him when he does something selfish and stupid. Just like the characters, who get themselves into the mess by listening to him and knowing better, so does the audience. Armstrong’s like a big kid for lots of Kong, always coming up with the best action after the consequence.

That first scene also goes far in establishing Bruce Cabot. Cabot’s character is Kong‘s most interesting–as is the way the film handles him. The scene with Cabot ranting to Fay Wray about women not belonging on ships–we’re supposed to understand it’s Cabot who’s off, not Wray. Regardless of whether or not he’s right, the first forty minutes of Kong are about Cabot learning to stop acting like a little boy (which Armstrong never has to do). It makes the romance between Cabot and Wray a wonderful one to watch unfold–that “Yes, sir” following their first kiss elicits a fantastic mood.

These scenes all happen long before Kong shows up, long before the roller coaster starts. I didn’t even get to the coffee shop scene, where Armstrong’s enthusiasm even gets the viewer going–promising everyone, viewer and Wray alike, the wait will be worth it.

And when Kong does show up, it’s clearly worth it. King Kong doesn’t really make the monster a sympathetic character. He tends to chomp on people and his curiosity usually leads to someone dying in a horrific manner, but they do make him into a real character. Utterly insensitive to the chaos he causes, Kong still has these wonderful, inquisitive moments. He’s frequently confused by the little people and it rounds out the film, bringing about emotional concern for him without having to light it in neon. The film reduces Wray’s part to victim at the halfway mark–and she certainly never shows any concern for Kong–which is narratively reasonable. It also puts the onerous on the viewer–if he or she wants to care for Kong, it’s because of his or her response to him, not because the film’s dictating.

Once Kong gets back to New York, the whole thing seems to wrap up in fifteen minutes. There’s the interesting monologue from Armstrong though, regarding what he’s done to Kong. He’s fully aware he’s been culturally insensitive, as well as zoologically, but he doesn’t care. The people don’t care what they’ve done to Kong and Kong doesn’t care what he does for people. It creates an interesting, ego and superego free narrative. Anything the audience wants to bring to it or attribute to it, they’re bringing themselves.

King Kong‘s a lot of things audiences and critics had to come up with new adjectives to describe back in 1933–a romance, an adventure being the two easiest–but it’s simply just a fantastic way to spend a hundred minutes.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack; screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, based on an idea by Cooper and Edgar Wallace; directors of photography, Edward Linden, J.O. Taylor, Vernon L. Walker and Kenneth Peach; edited by Ted Cheesman; music by Max Steiner; production designer, Carroll Clark; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Fay Wray (Ann Darrow), Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham), Bruce Cabot (Jack Driscoll), Frank Reicher (Captain Englehorn), Sam Hardy (Charles Weston), Noble Johnson (Skull Island native chief), Steve Clemente (Witch King), James Flavin (Second Mate Briggs) and Victor Wong (Charlie).


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