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2017-05-01 07:14 pm

Follow Thru (1930)

I found this film on YouTube (split into 12 parts, not sure why) as part of my great Thelma Todd binge. She’s only got a supporting role in this one as “the bad girl rival”, but does quite well in it. The film stars Charles “Buddy” Rogers, one of Todd’s classmates in acting school, and the only other member of her class to have a significant Hollywood career. Nancy Carroll plays the female lead, a local golf champion in competition with Thelma Todd for both trophies and for Rogers’s affection. The lead couple aren’t called upon to do much of a dramatic range, but do carry out their roles pleasingly. Also notable in the cast is a pre-Tin Woodsman Jack Haley, whose face I did not recognize but whose voice I did, in an extremely silly role. Matching him in silliness is Zelma O’Neal; the romance between her and Haley is delightfully off-kilter.

O’Neal and Haley had both been in the Broadway show that this film was based on. With a well tested story, and some of the actors already very familiar with their roles, I found the film more successful than the average of this era.

Of technical interest, this is one of the very first Technicolor films. They were still working the kinks out, so the whole thing has a fairly muted palette, but the history-of-technology geek in me found that neat to see.

In addition to the romantic comedy, it’s also a musical, mostly using pre-existing pop music of that era. The songs are well sung, if not enduring classics. Most of the choreography is either quite restrained, or looking very much like a stage number that was filmed. That said, there is one bizarre exception. A production number late in the film (section 8 of the split up YouTube version) “I Want to be Bad” starts out with some fairly nifty pyrotechnics and what could plausibly be practical effects. But it just keeps going more and more over the top, with angels descending literally from heaven and getting caught in the flames of hell, cupids in the clouds summoning astral fire engines, and things like that. I have to wonder if they borrowed young Busby Berkeley to choreograph that section. If they didn’t, I have to believe it was an influence on him.

Overall, a pleasant bit of fluff, and mildly recommended. But Sovay, you should at least check out that one song.
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2017-03-04 07:01 pm

Call Her Savage (1932)

Thelma Todd has a fairly small, thankless role in this as a tough society dame who has the misfortune of not being nearly AS tough as headliner Clara Bow. But Bow, in her apparently-best talkie role, is riveting. In this, her penultimate film role, she demonstrates that she definitely still has IT.

The story is purely melodrama, but it is pre-code melodrama, with lots of room for implied salaciousness. Bow plays a young lady named Nasa, who has a fiery temper and a wide emotional range. By the time she’s out of finishing school, the tabloids have nicknamed her “Dynamite”, and she’s earned it. Her character arc brings her all over the map; from rich society girl, to destitute single mother prostitute, back to riches, and finally (perhaps) true happiness with the one who quietly loved her all along. Along the way, she rides horses (and men), whips rattlesnakes (and men), has knock-down drag-out fights with Thelma Todd (and men), and enjoys lots of offscreen sex with men (just men, though I gather the original novel had rather more range).

One notable historic tidbit: this film apparently contains the first not-even-coded depiction of gayness. At one point, Bow goes slumming to a cabaret with mincing waiters singing a saucy song about sailors! Like many incidents in the film, it’s hideously offensive by modern standards, but historically interesting.

I can’t say it’s a GOOD film, but I mostly enjoyed it.
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2017-02-25 08:08 pm

Seven Footsteps to Satan (1929)

Seven Footsteps to Satan (1929) is the earliest Thelma Todd film I have found. Indeed, it is so early that it is a silent movie (apparently one of the last silent horror films).

While I found it interesting enough to finish watching and to write about, let me be clear up front: this is not a good movie. Not much plot, unevenly paced, poorly directed. The acting is passable. And, though this is not a fault of the original makers, the existing print that this was restored from is incredibly washed out, lacking nearly all visual detail. The ending is a narrative cheat that is only half a step above “it was all a dream”.

The story begins with a somewhat nebbishy leading man who is practicing marksmanship in his secret lab, so that he will be well prepared to go exploring in “darkest Africa”. Soon, he gets tangled up with robbers and then he and his girlfriend are suddenly kidnapped. So far, so pulp.

But then the film takes a sharp left into dream logic. Our heroes find themselves in a huge mansion that seems not unrelated to Castle Frank-N-Furter. It is packed to the rafters with secret passages, thugs in tuxedos, tortured damsels in distress, mysterious dwarfs, screeching apes, inscrutable Orientals, men with Exceedingly Strange facial hair, femmes fatales, ominous shadows, groping hands, and orgiastic cultists whose cult leader is named Satan. This is not a complete list.

Our hero keeps insisting that he just wants to go home, in the apparent belief that this will have any positive effect. But things keep happening. It’s never really clear why he has been brought there at all, what Satan wants with him, which of the weird characters are actually on his side, or much of anything really. (At least until the last few minutes, whose existence I deny.) It’s very nearly Lynch-ian. If you’re a fan of the surreal, I recommend starting at the 20 minute mark, and turning it off at 1:10 (just as the clapping starts).
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2017-02-15 10:56 pm

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

This is the FIRST movie version of the Hammett novel, now known basically as a footnote to the legendary classic remake in 1941 starring Humphrey Bogart. I watched it because of a Thelma Todd part, which turned out to be a poor reason, as her part is small and without much scope (Mrs. Archer). On the other hand, as a piece of comparative storytelling it was FASCINATING!

In this case, the interesting comparisons are largely to be found in the acting and direction. Both sets of writers wisely realized that the source material was sufficiently strong that it didn’t so much need to be adapted as transcribed.* The screenplays are not identical, but each of them takes about 90% of their plot, and even dialogue, directly from the novel. With so much the same, the differences are starkly highlighted.

The biggest difference is in the character of Sam Spade himself. While Bogart would focus on a cynical world-weariness, Ricardo Cortez spends more time grinning than not. He seemed to me to be saying, “YOU characters may think you’re in a gritty crime novel, but I’M in a romantic sex comedy!” Emphasis on the sex; this pre-Code Spade is a complete slut. He spends a lot more time getting laid (and thinking about getting laid) then Bogart. Our first view of this Spade is in silhouette, through his office door, smooching a VERY satisfied client; he then returns to his inner office and straightens up the disarranged pillows of his sofa. Bogart may have slept with Mrs. Archer, but he gave the impression that it was under duress; Cortez also breaks off with Mrs. Archer, but only because she has become inconvenient, not because he has any objection whatsoever to sleeping with his partner’s wife. Cortez is certainly capable of being tough or serious; he just does so as little as possible.

This lighter-hearted Spade plays excellently well against Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly (this version dispenses with the multiple aliases of the femme fatale). In fact, Daniels is the one actor who I would say did a distinctly better job than their 1941 counterpart. This is no great surprise, as I think Mary Astor is the weakest element of that version. Daniels is more obvious in her duplicity, but also significantly more vivacious and seductive. Cortez’s Spade knows enough not to trust her from the start, but obviously also thinks that she is sufficiently hot that he is more than willing to go along with her for the time being. It’s tawdry, but it makes obvious sense, something that their relationship in the 1941 movie never did for me.

On its own merits, as a pre-Code proto-noir, this is a fine little film. It’s not an enduring classic like the 1941 version, but you knew that.

Of course, having watched two versions, now I’m going to have to go watch the in-between 1936 version, Satan Met a Lady, starring Bette Davis. No doubt I shall report back…

* Kestrell and I refer to these as “gift stories”. As in, “You were given this as a gift; all you had to do was not throw it away.” I’m not always a purist when it comes to adaptations, but when you’re given perfect source material, have the sense to recognize it. Case in point being Treasure Island, which is been filmed a dozen times at least, but only a couple of them had the sense to just tell the story they were given.
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2017-02-11 09:31 pm

“So you wanna play pirate?” Corsair (1931)

My latest kick is the films of Thelma Todd. I first developed a crush on her decades ago from the Marx Brothers films Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. Having been recently reminded that she actually did a huge amount of work (in a tragically short life), I’ve been seeking out more of it. While far from a complete filmography, a surprisingly large amount of her work is available on YouTube. The first two I tried, I didn’t stick with long enough to see her part, but the third was worth completing, and then talking about.

Corsair (1931), directed by Todd’s boyfriend Roland West, was surprising in a number of ways. For a start, the title, combined with an opening shot of a sailing ship, led me to believe I was getting a classic pirate movie. Piracy does eventually feature, but we START with… a contemporary (to 1931) football game?

Chester Morris plays John Hawks, an all American quarterback from the Midwest, and a rising star. He’s planning on a steady job as a football coach, when he has the misfortune of catching the eye of spoiled heiress Allison Corning (Thelma Todd). She knows what she wants, and she usually gets it. Hawks’s resistance to her charms only makes her want him more. (Speaking as a Guy, I feel compelled to note that those charms include a very nice translucent shirt with no bra under it – pre-Code for the win!)

Allison arranges for John to be employed in her father’s Wall Street financial firm. He adapts well at first, but after a year, decides that he can no longer stomach selling junk bonds to widows (literally). Instead, using some contacts he has picked up over that year, he’s going into a much more straightforward profession: piracy on the high seas!

Well, sort of. He’s found out that his former boss, in addition to his other unethical dealings, wholesales a lot of booze from criminals (these are Prohibition times). A rich friend provides a boat, and some criminals on the inside provide information on delivery times. John hijacks the booze, then sells it BACK to Allison’s father for both financial gain and the satisfaction of cheating the old skinflint.

There is an extended subplot involving the two criminals who are working with John, during which the film ventures into what I would have to call proto-noir territory. Lots of sharp shadows and murky morals. The relationship between the two frays under the extreme stress and danger of their doublecross, but even as they cynically snipe, their love for each other shines through. Especially good work here by actress Mayo Methot.

Sadly, once that subplot is over, the film seems to settle in to a fairly conventional final act. The final confrontation between John and the criminals is serviceable, but little more than that. Allison’s father turns out to be slightly less slimy then he looked, and hires John back as a company president.

We end on a kiss between John and Allison, though a somewhat ambiguous one. It is certainly possible to stick with the surface reading that she is renouncing her wild ways for properly meek womanhood and True Love. On the other hand, it seems equally valid to read the scene as Allison using her devious feminine wiles to finally overcome John’s resistance. I expect they will have an interestingly stormy marriage, regardless.

While I can’t recommend it unreservedly, the early scenes with Thelma Todd are great, as are the noir-ish sequences in the middle.