Tag Archives: Warner Baxter

Penthouse (1933, W.S. Van Dyke)

Penthouse is a lean mystery masquerading as a class melodrama. Most of that class melodrama stuff comes at the front–and is only really ever alluded to later–making the film front-heavy. Unfortunately, so much time goes towards the melodrama, the mystery suffers. Luckily, there’s a whole bunch of charm–from the cast, from the script, from director Van Dyke–and it makes up for the uneasy narrative.

Warner Baxter is a blue blood lawyer who discovers his passion is for helping the unjustly accused professional criminal. The criminal can’t be guilty of the crime he’s charged with. The film opens with Baxter successfully defending Nat Pendleton’s mob boss. Pendleton’s fantastic. He’s part of the film’s comic relief, but he’s also conveys danger.

Penthouse doesn’t seem to have much of a budget–it’s that lean mystery, after all–so there aren’t a lot of big set pieces. Danger and drama usually play out in conversation. It’s a talky lean mystery, so it’s good screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett do so well with the dialogue.

Baxter can make any line engaging. He easily breezes through most of the mystery stuff at the end as he distracts from the film’s lack of a big third act finish, but when his material’s good, he’s outstanding. There’s not a lot of time in the script to establish Baxter. His girl (Martha Sleeper) breaks his heart and the film follows her instead of him–because the melodrama. Baxter’s just getting hammered, much to the chagrin of both Pendleton (in addition to being a client, he’s a pal) and Charles Butterworth (as Baxter’s suffering butler).

Only then the film doesn’t stick with Sleeper, but follows Phillips Holmes as her other suitor, then shifts to Mae Clarke as Holmes’s illicit lover. By the time C. Henry Gordon shows up–as Clarke’s ex and Pendleton’s criminal rival–one might forget there was someone else in the opening titles, second-billed, in fact. Myrna Loy. She doesn’t even show up until the second act, which isn’t ideal because there’s only an hour left.

Loy’s sort of a mob moll, sort of not. It’s unclear; Goodrich and Hackett get a lot of amazing innuendo into the script but barely any details. Penthouse isn’t supposed to make sense, it’s supposed to entertain. When it’s too busy trying to build to entertaining points–Loy and Baxter flirt wonderfully but when it comes time for them to make actual sweet talk, it’s all off. Goodrich and Hackett awkwardly combine their romantic melodrama into mystery deduction scenes. It never gels. Maybe because Baxter treating Loy as disposable doesn’t make any sense.

But they’re still great together in most of their scenes and both of them generate a bunch of goodwill on their own. Loy and Butterworth are wonderful together, for example.

Van Dyke’s got some good direction in the film, usually involving Clarke or Loy. He doesn’t try as much in the other scenes, just keeps it brisk. He does seem to get bored occasionally. There’s one fifteen minute stretch in the second act it feels like nothing but two shots between different characters sitting (or walking to some other place to sit).

Penthouse is an uneven, but still successful outing. Another thirty minutes or so, a little more of a budget, a little better editing from Robert Kern (though maybe Van Dyke didn’t have the time for more coverage), it probably would’ve been better. With Loy, Baxter and Pendleton (and Butterworth)–and Van Dyke’s able direction–it works pretty well.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, based on a story by Arthur Somers Roche; directors of photography, Lucien N. Andriot and Harold Rosson; edited by Robert Kern; music by William Axt; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Warner Baxter (Jackson Durant), Myrna Loy (Gertie Waxted), Nat Pendleton (Tony Gazotti), C. Henry Gordon (Jim Crelliman), Martha Sleeper (Sue Leonard), Charles Butterworth (Layton), Phillips Holmes (Tom Siddall) and Mae Clarke (Mimi Montagne).



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THIS POST IS PART OF THE CLASSIC SYMBIOTIC COLLABORATIONS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THERESA OF CINEMAVEN'S ESSAYS FROM THE COUCH.


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Barricade (1939, Gregory Ratoff)

Barricade is a nice bit of pre-World War II propaganda, one of handful of ones supporting the Chinese government. The film lays it on rather thick, with heart-warming flag moments, frequent prayer, and reminders to the audience there are some people in the world worrying about more than a run in their stockings. Except the movie only runs around seventy minutes and it’s got nice sets and a lot of action, so the preachiness isn’t a significant problem. The biggest problem is Alice Faye, who’s tolerable maybe fifteen percent of the time. The rest… well, knowing the film only runs seventy minutes makes her scenes easier to tolerate.

It also helps almost all of her scenes are with Warner Baxter, who’s dependably fantastic. The nice production values and his leading man performance carry most of Barricade. There’s a hurried story about Baxter’s alcoholism and its effect of his job as a reporter and there’s an annoying bit about Faye being on the run for murder. Apparently, Barricade had massive, story-changing, role-excising cuts and its a good thing. The film’s a bore with interesting sets until the last half hour, when Mongolian bandits have the Americans under siege.

Ratoff shoots those sets really well and then when the action hits, he comes through even more. The scenes are tensed and paced well and Baxter’s running the show, so everything works–at least until the movie takes a break and reintroduces its silly elements. These silly moments are signaled by Faye’s return to the center stage, whether it’s her ludicrous woman-on-the-run story or her somewhat less ludicrous (by the last half hour) romance with Baxter.

Charles Winninger plays the America consul protecting Faye and Baxter, and his performance is a little more than the film deserves. While Baxter can manage the romance, comedy and action elements, Winninger is quite affecting and his scenes suggest the film has potential beyond what it’s realizing. It’s got some fine production values and–it’s like they had the sets, but shot the wrong script on them.

But whenever it’s looking too good, Faye pops up again and she brings it all back down. As a propaganda template, Barricade doesn’t really signal what would come during the war (it doesn’t end with the flag waving over the end title card), but it knows how to make the common elements work. In some ways, because the heroes are all down-and-outers (Winninger’s consul’s been forgotten by Washington), it’s a little more effective. But Faye and the script really drag it down….

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Gregory Ratoff; written by Granville Walker; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Jack Dennis; music by David Buttolph; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Warner Baxter (Hank Topping), Alice Faye (Emmy Jordan), Charles Winninger (Samuel J. Cady), Keye Luke (Ling), Willie Fung (Yen) and Leonid Snegoff (Boris).


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