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Employees’ Entrance February 11, 2009

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1930s , add a comment

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Film Forum in New York City is having another of its wonderful series of classic Hollywood movies, most of which are being shown in double features and many of the films haven’t been released on DVD. The title this time is “Breadlines and Champagne,” with a theme focusing on movies released around the time of the Great Depression. Nearly all were made prior to the implementation of the Production Code and they remain incredibly fresh even today. Some of the plots and jokes are relevant now more than in a very long time, adding a sad but fascinating layer to the viewing experience. This doesn’t seem lost on the folks at FF, as they’ve scheduled giveaway drawings each Tuesday night and even kicked off the program with a full day of the Mae West picture I’m No Angel at only 35 cents admission. I found a quarter beside a subway turnstile and it covered my full member ticket!

Filmwise, I was more interested in a double feature pairing two Warren William pictures. Skyscraper Souls, from 1932, has William as the namesake and owner of a 100-story skyscraper who uses nefarious means to get most anything he wants. It’s usually compared to Grand Hotel due to both films centering on several characters in a single setting. The cast is a step down in name recognition, including Maureen O’Sullivan, Norman Foster, and Anita Page, but they perform ably. In particular, there’s a sequence late in the film where William has devised a scheme to obtain full ownership of the building by paying all his outstanding loans. The plan involves basically ruining the lives, sometimes in the immediate sense while others more permanently, of everyone else in the cast. It plays out with a gravity that completely shifts the tone of the movie and feels all too familiar to followers of current events. Some nice camera work from William Daniels also contributes to making Skyscraper Souls entirely worth watching.

Even still, it’s not in the same league with Employees’ Entrance, which is simultaneously shocking and giddily enjoyable. William is basically the same character as in the earlier film, but the performance is far more ferocious and unapologetic. If you’re not familiar with Warren William as an actor, track down this movie (it’s on VHS and shows on TCM occasionally) to see someone who essentially has no peer from that era for charismatically playing complete pricks. His characterization of department store boss Kurt Anderson teeters between going over the top and being so forceful as to almost make the viewer feel sorry for this guy. He’s an inveterate womanizer, setting his sights on Loretta Young both before and after she’s married his protege, and he has zero compassion, reacting to the suicide of a longtime employee he’d recently fired with the rationalization that all men should kill themselves when they’re no longer useful. And yet, you can’t take your eyes off of William, with a face resembling a bull terrier, when he’s on the screen.

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As in Skyscraper Souls, there’s quite a bit to ponder regarding capitalism in Employees’ Entrance. The film is set almost entirely in a large department store, where William’s character Anderson quickly rises to the top based on his proven ability to increase sales. His entire existence, save for carnal flings, revolves around how to improve the store’s profits and he’s unwilling to tolerate even a single mistake. He eschews ethics and decency for the success at whatever cost mentality. He’s cutthroat, diabolical and irredeemable, but he gets the job done while displaying a total commitment to his endeavor. The portrayal feels very American to me for its insistence on being number one. I feel like that’s the ideal of the country, the secret of success, and I don’t know how relevant it remains right now. Part of the sheer glee in watching William unload on the various levels of incompetence around him is in knowing that he’s almost always in the right. His methods are debatable, but we see no one in the film working more passionately than Anderson does.

Just how he works is also part of the fun. Anderson thinks one character is overseeing his every move a little too closely so he sends a very willing model from the women’s department to keep the man company, doubling her salary for the trouble. The model is played by Alice White, an actress who ideally should’ve been a much bigger name than she was. She was also in the James Cagney movie Picture Snatcher, among a few others, but she’s really great here as a bubbled up blonde who’s more sly than she seems. Her scenes with William have some of the snappiest dialogue, from a screenplay filled with breakneck quips, in the film. I believe it’s their first meeting we see when he tells her that he didn’t recognize her with all those clothes on. The line isn’t delivered in a cutesy and forced provocative way like one of Mae West’s quips, making it even more jawdropping.

Though the ostensible plot of Employees’ Entrance is most concerned with a romance between Young and Wallace Ford, and their secret marriage, the film and director Roy Del Ruth seem more interested in William terrorizing everyone in his path. You might still expect some redemption of the character, given the film’s time and place, but we instead get a good 75 minutes of behavior totally lacking in scruples. Anderson doesn’t change, see the light, face punishment, or any of that other Production Code nonsense. His stripes remain firmly in place all the way to the end. When his protege, played by Ford, threatens to shoot him from point blank range, Anderson provides encouragement and then mocks him for only hitting his wrist. He seems to be almost laughing at the thought that a mere bullet could take him down.

TCM Complete Lost and Found RKO Collection February 3, 2009

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1930s , add a comment

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Back in December, cable channel and haven of quality older films Turner Classic Movies did something a bit strange. In conjunction with online retailer Movies Unlimited, TCM put together a package of six films originally made for RKO studios in the 1930s and released them exclusively through its website, both together in a box and individually. TCM had previously partnered with corporate buddy Warner Bros. Home Video for several DVD releases through a separate TCM Archives banner. These will surely continue, with a Forbidden Hollywood Volume 3 scheduled to hit shelves in March. The RKO films are different, however, and have no connection to Warner Bros. at all.

The six films (titles later) were all picked up by former RKO head and King Kong producer Merian C. Cooper several years after he left the studio. Legal stuff. They had very few television showings in the 1950s, mostly in the New York City area I believe, but hadn’t been seen again until February 2007 when they all screened at Film Forum in NYC. In April of the same year they made their debut on TCM, and the channel has aired the pictures intermittently ever since. The films were presumed lost, but actually had been stowed away safely by Cooper. Some more legal wrangling eventually allowed for the TCM broadcasts and freshly struck film prints. Though Warner Bros. owns the majority of the RKO catalog, these films weren’t included due to the rights being used as payment to Cooper decades ago. At some point, TCM apparently anted up for the films’ rights and we now have a lovely box set of early Hollywood films.

The artwork used and entire presentation is really quite elegant and classy. My particular set was a Christmas present, but I was eyeing it strong enough that a purchase was nonetheless imminent. Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened the sturdy keepcases only to realize that the discs are not actual manufactured DVDs, but burned DVD-R copies. This is clearly a blunder on TCM’s part. DVD-R discs are less stable than regular DVDs and can sometimes refuse to play on certain players and/or crap out after a period of time. The set isn’t cheap either, costing $65 plus shipping with no friendly competition to drive the price down. None of this DVD-R business was advertised either. I had assumed this was a legitimate operation and that I’d receive DVDs. Future releases are apparently planned and I now dread the idea of paying high prices for DVD-R copies. This particular set, dubbed the TCM Complete Lost and Found RKO Collection, is being advertised as only available for a limited time. How limited is anyone’s guess. Aren’t we all only available for a limited time?

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Going in, I’d only seen one of these RKO pictures - the Ginger Rogers movie Rafter Romance. I almost always find Ginger’s movies from the ’30s to be delightful and this is no exception. She stars alongside Norman Foster as a pair of youngsters who unwittingly fall for one another while sharing the same Greenwich Village apartment. Ginger’s character rents during the night because she’s a telephone salesperson hocking ice boxes by day. Foster lives in the same room during the day and acts as a night watchman while she’s in the apartment. They meet away from home, not knowing they’re roommates, and a sweet little romance develops. It’s cute enough for 70 minutes and definitely my favorite in the set. There’s even a stray dig at the Nazis thrown in for little reason other than a somewhat hidden political statement.

The other title I was most interested in was Double Harness, with William Powell and Ann Harding. Powell was under contract at Warner Bros., though he’d gotten attention while making Philo Vance mysteries for Paramount, and was loaned out to RKO for the picture. The plot has Powell as a rich playboy shipping magnate who’s sort of conned into marrying Harding. It’s slightly interesting that the rationale for their entire marriage is Harding’s father coming over after the couple had presumably engaged in premarital relations. Though seeing such topics addressed just prior to the implementation of the Production Code does hold some value, the film overall is dull and aggressively depressing. No one seems happy, even the typically jubilant Powell, and there’s a sense of doom hanging over the entire thing. The Depression is referenced twice (a surefire downer for anyone watching at this point in time), most cleverly early on when we’re told everyone’s broke and those who aren’t should pretend to be.

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The somber tone of the film feels odd. Harding’s sister is constantly in debt for buying expensive clothes, but it’s hardly a few bucks here and there. Her bill at one store prior to getting married is over $3,000. That’s $3,000 in 1933 money. Later she tries to wrangle another $1,000 from Harding and anyone else who’ll listen. That’s an insane amount of cash for that time period. Even crazier is Powell’s character, who thinks nothing of writing out a check for it. Something with all of this sits funny with me. Really no one in the film has it together at all. Each character is undeserving of what they have and completely unsympathetic. Harding makes almost zero impression. The final wrap-up is jarring and takes about as long as it would to rip a bow off of a gift. Aside from a couple of good lines (Powell’s likening of geraniums to Harding) and a sometimes interesting performance from Powell, Double Harness is difficult to recommend with any enthusiasm.

A bit better is the third film from 1933 in the set, One Man’s Journey. It stars Lionel Barrymore, who’s considerably folksy and humble as a doctor still wounded from the death of his wife in child birth when the movie begins. He moves back to the country and tries to establish himself as a physician in the small town, but falters on his first try when an expectant mother doesn’t survive the birth of her child. The father is so angry he doesn’t want to keep his own baby daughter. Barrymore’s Dr. Eli Watt begins raising the little girl alongside his young son, with a helpful May Robson moving in to keep things afloat. Soon enough (the film only runs 72 minutes), the doctor gains respect in the town by successfully treating a smallpox epidemic. His son grows up to be Joel McCrea, and he wishes to follow his father’s career path except as a specialist who can work in the city. The casting here is notable because McCrea’s love interest is played by Frances Dee. Shortly after filming the two would be married and remain so for 57 years, until his death in 1990.

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One Man’s Journey was a nice little surprise that plays well to my innate sense of American small town folksiness. Barrymore’s restraint is noteworthy, as is the film’s resistance to ever becoming overly preachy or simplistic. Dr. Watt is portrayed as a generous man who’s primarily concerned with treating those in need more than earning even a modest wage. That overly simple portrayal of a life that may have never even existed (though I suspect it did) usually wins favor from me. The film has a few other moments of interest, belying its pre-Code production, which also tend to mitigate the rushed nature and other shortcomings. Most fascinating is a quick, and a bit awkward, scene where Barrymore and Robson are driving and her dialogue comes to an abrupt stop only to then be picked up by the now grown-up girl taken in at the beginning (played by Dorothy Jordan, who had just become Mrs. Merian C. Cooper and wouldn’t make another film for twenty years) and her paramour. The presentation is unexpected, but so is the subject matter. The Jordan character is pressured into premarital sex under the stars, later leading to a pregnancy. There’s what seems to be a punishment that immediately follows the act. For a film this homespun, the scene plays as even more naughty than it probably should.

While One Man’s Journey lends itself to a sense of being realistically grounded in a definite time and place, the 1934 film Stingaree more closely resembles a peacock in a fish tank. Its sincere ridiculousness keeps the viewer interested at all times, if for no other reason than to see whether the film will acknowledge in some way how absurd it is. That this movie, which involves an English bandit in the Australian outback whose superpower seems to be the ability to write songs, was directed by William Wellman only furthers the disbelief. Wellman was a prolific studio craftsman who excelled in the 1930s with pictures often aimed in the direction of exploring social issues. Wellman’s films like The Public Enemy, Wild Boys of the Road, and Heroes for Sale still have quite the impact several decades later and play as hard-hitting, to the point dramas. In comparison to these and other Wellman pictures, Stingaree seems almost like a joke.

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Reuniting Irene Dunne and Richard Dix from Best Picture winner Cimarron, Wellman’s film pairs the leads, respectively, as a woman who dreams of singing but is essentially trapped in the home of a rich, badgering woman who has a terrible voice and the infamous bandit Stingaree who poses as a music box salesman. The movie starts off well enough as Stingaree and his goofy sidekick Howie (Andy Devine) enter a saloon quietly and leave with much more of a commotion. The mustachioed bandit then shows up unannounced at Dunne’s home as she’s singing and playing the piano. Where exactly he thought this visit would lead is anyone’s guess, but the path taken is probably even more unlikely. Stingaree, pretending to be a famous composer, teaches Dunne a song, which she later uses to become world renowned with help from the real composer. The creeping feeling of how sensationally silly the plot is sort of makes the film an early contender for the “so bad it’s good” mantle. Aided by Wellman’s direction and the lead performances, Stingaree’s flaws are strange enough to very nearly become strengths. I’d rather watch a movie like this than bland retreads of the Living on Love variety.

Canvassing the same ground as Rafter Romance did just four years earlier, Living on Love takes a pretty good story and buries it in mediocrity. James Dunn picks up the Norman Foster role and while he doesn’t embarrass himself, I still prefer Foster’s lanky slickness. More discouraging is Ginger Rogers’ replacement, Whitney Bourne, who shows herself to be a poor actress and has no chemistry with Dunn. It’s easier to believe the warring anonymous roommates portion of the plot than the budding lovebirds business. A direct comparison of the two films also favors the slightly risqué nature of Rafter Romance. Its pre-Code mischievousness makes the remake look prudish. Scenes that are duplicated across both films especially suffer. When the landlord is showing his female tenant her new shared apartment in Rafter Romance, he cheekily shoves a liquor bottle out of the way before also claiming a pipe as his own. Living on Love omits the liquor bottle altogether. You won’t be seeing the equivalent of Ginger Rogers showering in the latter either, which instead seems to have a strange preoccupation with shots of legs running or walking down the street.

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The final film in the set is also a remake of another one of these very movies. A Man to Remember, the first picture directed by Garson Kanin (at the tender age of 25) and released originally in 1938 , follows the same story as One Man’s Journey. It was made quickly and cheaply, but garnered rave reviews when first shown. Much of the later film is familiar territory, but without a lot of the sentimentality found in the earlier version. Star Edward Ellis was older than Lionel Barrymore had been and it shows in his performance, which comes across as more serious and dignified. The straightforward humanity displayed is once again impressive and perhaps the film’s strongest attribute.

Future blacklistee Dalton Trumbo received sole credit for the screenplay. He altered the story structure from the original film and source novel, starting A Man to Remember at doctor John Abbott’s funeral and flashing back to moments in the man’s life. That the remembrances occur with visual fades from various debts Abbott owed at his death seems of some definite importance. Trumbo’s work is often scrutinized for hints into his leftist politics, and while One Man’s Journey also had a sharp focus on the doctor’s somewhat selfless work done for little money, A Man to Remember particularly emphasizes this point in terms of duty versus monetary reward. Some of the other small differences are especially intriguing, with events rearranged or altered between the two films. One particular contrast is the much warmer, eventually romantic relationship that develops between Abbott’s son and the orphaned girl he raised. The earlier One Man’s Journey gave both characters separate companions while Kanin and Trumbo use an odd, almost incestuous fix to the romantic angle that one would normally expect more from a pre-Code film.

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Though the idea to pounce on one event after another in the man’s life makes for some awkward and unconvincing transitions, the more distracting issue with A Man to Remember is something that can’t be helped. The other films in this set were all licensed out for regional television broadcast in the 1950s, but A Man to Remember hadn’t been seen since its original release in 1938. The only known print to have survived originated in the Netherlands and has Dutch subtitles burned into the bottom of the picture. This is a mild imposition on its own and can be ignored once the viewer settles in a bit. For awhile my eyes kept gravitating to the subtitles like they would for any other subtitled film, except I can’t read Dutch. The bigger problem is that most all of the written material in the film, the notes of debt and various other things, has also been converted to Dutch without any English equivalent provided. I knew silent films often did this, but I don’t think I realized other pictures were altered for international audiences in this manner.

Regarding the quality of the prints used, nothing was disappointing. There’s some minor dirt and vertical line damage on most of the films, but not to the point of distraction. A few frames seem to be missing, particularly on A Man to Remember. Stingaree has an annoying habit of sometimes looking slightly greenish. It doesn’t appear that any major clean-up was done, as evidenced by the amount of dirt and occasional scratches, but all the films look good enough to satisfy the reasonable viewer.

The bonus material on these releases initially seems generous, and indeed some thought and care must have been put into it, but only a couple of titles really have much of any substance. Each film has a selection of stills, lobby cards and posters accessible from the disc. Pressbooks are also available from the menu and as pdf files upon inserting the DVD-R into a computer. All the films are advertised as having a “Rudy Behlmer Video Commentary,” but this is a tad misleading since Behlmer’s comments are quite short at just a couple of minutes per title and the two remakes share the same pieces with their originals. Stingaree doesn’t even have one of these, though it does have a short bit on the history of these RKO titles, as do all the other discs. The main interest in the extra features comes from an interview on Stingaree with William Wellman that runs 10 minutes and finds the director being quite candid and entertaining. It’s taken from Richard Schickel’s The Men Who Made the Movies episode on Wellman, which is soon to be released in the Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 3 set. Equally worthwhile is a piece with Garson Kanin from 1995 that lasts just over 11 minutes. It was done for TCM and has him discussing Samuel Goldwyn and Kanin’s preference for writing over directing.

All in all, the overly expensive set has some flaws both in the decision to use DVD-R’s and the quality of the films as a whole, but the simple option to own these films in relatively good editions should still be pleasing enough to the classic film consumer.

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