Winds of the Wasteland (1936)

Winds of the Wastelandwinds-of-the-wasteland poster
Directed by Mack V. Wright
Written by Joseph F. Poland
Republic Pictures

First viewing


Larry Adams: Who ever heard of sending messages over a piece of wire?

This otherwise forgettable B Western again demonstrates John Wayne’s innate star power.

The pony express is shutting its doors and rider John Blair (Wayne) must find a new line of work.  He decides to start a stagecoach line.  Evil Cal Drake sells him a stagecoach and one of his lines – which goes to a ghost town, population 2.  Not to be deterred, Blair single-handedly resurrects the town and prepares to compete with Drake in a race to win a lucrative government mail contract.  The rest should be obvious.  Plenty of fist fights and gun battles and a little humor.  No winds; no wasteland.

Winds of the Wastland 1

Among  the many actors in this who appear to be reading their lines for the first time, Wayne is completely natural.  Although I never agreed with his politics, in later years I have had to admit that the Duke definitely had something.

Clip – stagecoach battle (colorized – I was able to watch in black and white)


Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936)

Gold Diggers of 1937Gold Diggers of 1937 poster
Directed by Lloyd Bacon; Musical numbers created and directed by Busby Berkeley
Written by Warren Duff et al
Warner Bros.

First viewing


Genevieve Larkin: It’s so hard to be good under the capitalist system.

The Gold Digger series has been slowly transitioning from the back stage musical to the musical comedy.  The transition is almost complete in this entry, not necessarily to the benefit of the film.

Rosmer Peck (Dick Powell) is a struggling life insurance salesman who would rather be a Broadway star.  Norma Perry (Joan Blondell) is an out-of-work chorus girl who decides to get a regular paying job.  They meet cute on a train and Rosmer gets Norma a job with his company.  It is love at first sight but Rosmer is broke.

Norma’s friend Genevieve (Glenda Farrell) is still trying to make a career in show business and gets friendly with an assistant of Broadway producer J.J. Hobart (Victor Moore).  The assistant and his crony have misappropriated Hobart’s money.  Genevieve comes up with the idea of buying life insurance on hypochondriac Hobart with the thought that he will die soon (hilarious, I know).  Rosmer sells Hobart a million dollar policy, the commissions on which will allow him to marry Norma.  When Hobart passes the medical exam for the policy, he gets a new lease on life causing Genevieve and her friends to take action.

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This is almost a straight musical comedy with most of the numbers sung by Dick Powell in the course of the plot.  There is one production number at the end as part of the obligatory “let’s put on a show” effort.  Neither the routines nor the comedy is good enough to make this a must see.  Dick Powell and Joan Blondell retain their charm, however.

Dimples (1936)

DimplesDimples Poster
Directed by William A. Seiter
Written by Arthur Sheekman and Ned Perrin from an idea by Nunnally Johnson
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

First viewing


Prof. Eustace Appleby: I was quite a matinee idol in those days, you know. I still get letters from ladies in the towns where I played.

Dimples: Yes, landladies.

“Dimples” (Shirley Temple) is an urchin dancing on the streets of 1850 New York for pennies under the tutelage of her loveable con-artist/thief grandfather (Frank Morgan).  When she dances for a society party, the hostess Mrs. Drew (Helen Westley) falls in love with her and wants to adopt her.  But Dimples doesn’t really want to leave her grandfather. There is a subplot that involves Mrs. Drew’s nephew who wants to put on a production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.  Dimples ends up playing Little Eva in that, among a cast of black-faced actors.  The whole thing ends in a minstrel show number.  With Stepin Fetchit as grandfather’s servant.

Shirley Temple with Frank Morgan

Shirley Temple with Frank Morgan

This is mediocre when it isn’t offensive.  Shirley has lost a lot of her uncalculated charm and the songs aren’t memorable.



Fury (1936)

FuryFury Poster
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Bartlett Corbett and Fritz Lang based on a story by Norman Krasna

Repeat viewing


Joe Wilson: I’ll give them a chance that they didn’t give me. They will get a legal trial in a legal courtroom. They will have a legal judge and a legal defense. They will get a legal sentence and a legal death.

Fritz Lang remained a very powerful director after he emigrated to the United States.  This, his first film after he left Germany, hits on all cylinders and addresses some of the same themes explored in M.

Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) is an ordinary decent working stiff who is saving up to marry his fiancée Katherine (Sylvia Spencer).  Katherine finds a better job in Washington State and the two part until they are more financially secure.  Joe cautions his younger brothers to respect the law and ends up opening a gas station with them.

After a year of separation, Joe happily sets off to Washington in his car to marry Katherine. On the way, he is stopped by a deputy sheriff (Walter Brennan) on the lookout for a gang of child kidnappers.  He is taken into the small town’s sheriff’s station where he is found to have peanuts in his pockets (peanut debris was found in the kidnappers’ abandoned car) and a five dollar bill that matches the serial number of the ransom money.  The sheriff holds Joe in jail while he investigates further.  In the meantime, the rumor mill manufactures a case against him that whips locals into an angry mob.

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Fritz Lang delivered with a dark and cynical film that once again explores mob violence, this time from the perspective of an innocent man.  Fury also warns Americans how easily the Constitution and system of justice can be ignored or perverted when faced by the raw emotion of the crowd.  In fact, law enforcement and the courts are shown to be weak safeguards.  At one point, a character remarks that  foreigners are more familiar with the Constitution than native-born Americans because immigrants must study it to become citizens.

I just love the way the film builds from the initial romance to a gradual game of “telephone” like rumor mongering to explosive action and then to cold vengeance.  All these aspects are captured with Lang’s expressionist eye.  I think this is one of Spencer Tracy’s greatest performances and the rest of the cast does a good job.  The score by Franz Waxman helps to heighten the drama.  Highly recommended.

I cannot understand why  Fury is not currently available on DVD — I watched it on Amazon’s streaming service.



The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936)

The Man Who Could Work Miraclesman who could work miracles poster
Directed by Lothar Mendes and Alexander Korda
Scenario and dialogue by H.G. Wells from a story by H.G. Wells; screenplay by Lajos Biró
London Film Productions

First viewing


The subsequent meditations of Mr. Fotheringay were of a severe but confused description. So far, he could see it was a case of pure willing with him. The nature of his experiences so far disinclined him for any further experiments, at least until he had reconsidered them. But he lifted a sheet of paper, and turned a glass of water pink and then green, and he created a snail, which he miraculously annihilated, and got himself a miraculous new tooth-brush.” – H.G. Wells, “The Man Who Could Work Miracles”

Comedy and H.G. Wells wouldn’t seem to be an obvious match but it works out fairly well here.

A trio of demi-gods (including George Sanders in a very early role) bemoans the weakness of man.  One suggests giving men limitless power and seeing what happens.  The others are more cautious and convince him to experiment with just one man at first.

So our hero mild-mannered George Fotheringay (Roland Young with a Cockney accent) suddenly finds himself able to levitate a lamp at the local pub.  He experiments and finds everything is at his command except the minds of others.  When others find out about these gifts, they try to harness them for themselves.  George’s boss wants an exclusive agreement to enable him to open a chain of stores.  The local vicar (Ernest Thesinger) wants to eliminate poverty, illness, and war.  But there are those with interests in the ills of mankind who are not pleased, including Major Grigsby (Ralph Richardson).

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While it didn’t rock my world, I thought this movie was pretty entertaining.  I always enjoy Roland Young and Ralph Richardson disappeared into his role.



The General Died at Dawn (1936)

The General Died at Dawn General Died at Dawn Poster
Directed by Lewis Milestone
Written by Clifford Odets based on a story by Charles G. Booth
Paramount Pictures
First viewing


O’Hara: I like people too much to shoot. But it’s a dark year and a hard night.

This film has beautiful cinematography and art direction but takes itself a bit too seriously.

O’Hara (Gary Cooper) is an idealistic American who is working for the oppressed by helping the opposition to cruel warlord General Yang (Akim Tameroff).  His mission is to deliver a large sum of money to Shanghai where it will be used to buy arms for the rebels. He is warned to travel by plane only and to exercise extreme caution.  General Yang’s men employ Peter Perrie (Porter Hall) to help them part O’Hara from the money and to take it to Shanghai to rearm General Yang’s forces..

Perrie, who is ill and dreams of escaping China, enlists his very reluctant daughter Judy (Madeleine Carroll) to lure O’Hara onto the train.  Yang intercepts O’Hara on the train and gives the money to Perrie.  But Perrie has no intention of using it to buy arms …

General Died at Dawn 2

I was really looking forward to this film as I have enjoyed the other Gary Cooper Paramount pictures from the 30’s.  Cooper was fine as was most of the rest of the cast.  The problem was with the screenplay which was full of little speeches about the rights of man.  This significantly slowed the pace of the action.  Also, the character actor Porter Hall has a much bigger than usual role here and used the opportunity to overdo things.  It’s worth a look but could have been so much better.

Fan trailer


The Devil-Doll (1936)

The Devil-DollDevilDoll Poster
Directed by Tod Browning
Written by Garrett Fort, Guy Endore, and Erich von Stroheim from a story by Tod Browning based on the novel Burn Witch Burn by Abraham Merritt

First viewing


Malita: We’ll make the whole WORLD small!

MGM really didn’t understand the horror genre.

Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) and Marcel (Henry B. Walthall) escape from Devil’s Island, where Lavond has spent 17 years unjustly confined.  They go to Marcel’s house where his crazed wife Malita is continuing Marcel’s “humanitarian” experiments to shrink animals and humans to 1/6 their normal size.  Marcel asks Lavond to help the couple with their work but he refuses.  Lavond’s only remaining mission in life is to exact vengeance on the three fellow bankers that framed him for embezzlement and to lift the cloud of shame on his daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan).  But when Marcel suddenly dies, Lavond and Malita go off to Paris where they open a doll shop.  Lavond disguises himself as kindly old dollmaker “Mme. Mandilip”  and uses his miniaturized people, which move only at telepathic commands, in his revenge plot.

The Devil-Doll 1The premise of this movie had potential but failed to be creepy or scary. I got the feeling that MGM just couldn’t have Barrymore be a really bad guy. As it is, he is very much more Doctor Gillespie than Mr. Potter.  He seems completely sane and his revenge plans fully justified.  It is fun to see Barrymore as a woman, however. The special effects for the little people and animals are kind of clunky as well.  The film has a nice score by Franz Waxman.




Secret Agent (1936)

Secret Agent Secret Agent Poster
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Charles Bennett et al from the novel “Ashenden” by W. Somerset Maugham
Gaumont British Picture Corporation

Repeat viewing


Edgar Brodie: We aren’t hunting a fox, we’re hunting a man. He’s an oldish man, with a wife. Oh, I know it’s war and it’s our job to do it, but that doesn’t prevent it being murder – simple murder!

Peter Lorre makes this early Hitchcock film a ton of fun despite a plot that is even more implausible than usual.

For reasons unknown, a novelist who is serving in the British army in World War I is renamed Richard Ashenden and selected by British Intelligence ito assassinate a German spy in Switzerland.  The identity of the spy is, of course, unknown.  Ashenden (John Gielgud) is given a phony wife, Elsa (Madeleine Carroll), and a crazy double agent called “The General” (Peter Lorre) to assist him.  Elsa is carrying on a flirtation with American Robert Marvin (Robert Young),but is immediately attracted to Ashenden.  Ashenden’s mission is made more difficult by his and Elsa’s distaste for cold-blooded killing, even of an enemy.

secret agent 1

Although I have read that Lorre’s addiction made him quite a problem on the set, he still manages to turn in a bravura comic performance.  He is priceless as the randy “hairless Mexican”, so named because he is neither hairless nor Mexican, alternately delivering quips and exuding menace.  Madeleine Carroll is also wonderful.  Gielgud is good but he’s not really romantic lead material.  The story is one big McGuffin crowned by a head-scratcher ending but Hitchcock makes it all go down painlessly.

Clip – opening


Romeo and Juliet (1936)

Romeo and Julietromeo and juliet poster
Directed by George Cukor
Adapted by Talbot Jennings from the play by William Shakespeare

First viewing


Juliet: Romeo. Romeo. Wherefore art thou Romeo?

This lavish production of the Shakespearian tragedy has a lot going for it but is marred by some inappropriate casting.  With Leslie Howard as Romeo, Norma Shearer as Juliet, C. Aubrey Smith as Capulet, Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, John Barrymore as Mercutio, Reginald Denny as Benvolio, Edna May Oliver as Juliet’s Nurse, and Andy Devine as Peter.

Romeo and Juliet 1

This film was MGM’s answer to Warner Bros. production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream the previous year.  It has the same sumptuous art direction with a look a little like a medieval tapestry.  The music is also wonderful and many of the performances, particularly by the British cast members, are quite good.

The problem lies with the age of the cast.  Leslie Howard was 43 when this was made and Norma Shearer was 34, far too old to be the adolescents of the story.  Howard takes this in stride, playing Romeo as a grown man.  However, I think Shearer suffers greatly. Apparently someone thought she could get away with playing a young girl.  Her performance is thus very mannered and simpering in the first part of the film.  After Juliet’s marriage to Romeo, Shearer suddenly begins playing her as a mature woman. Unfortunately, this means she pulls out all the stops overacting to an almost embarrassing extent.  John Barrymore, who was 57 and nearing the end of his creative life, doesn’t do himself any favors either.

On the night of the Los Angeles premiere, Shearer’s husband, MGM production head Irving Thalberg, died at age 37.



Mayerling (1936)

MayerlingMayerling Poster
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Written by Marcel Archard, Joseph Kessel and Irma von Cubed based on a novel by Claude Anet
Nero Films

First viewing


The Archduke Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia (21 August 1858 – 30 January 1889) was the son and heir of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and Empress Elisabeth of Austria. His death, apparently through suicide, along with that of his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, at his Mayerling hunting lodge in 1889 made international headlines, fueled international conspiracy rumours and ultimately may have sealed the long-term fate of the Habsburg monarchy.

This romantic biopic made an international star out of Charles Boyer and features an exquisite performance by the 19-year-old Danielle Darrieux.

Progressive-thinking Archduke Rudolf is surrounded by spies sent by his enemies in the conservative Hapsburg monarchy.  He attempts to assuage his boredom in debauchery but that is scant comfort.  One day at an amusement park, he meets 17-year-old Maria Vetsera and is captivated by her innocence.  She develops a grand passion for him and they meet secretly until the Emperor calls an end to their tryst.  Their fate may have changed history.

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I liked this a lot.  Boyer and Darrieux also played the leads in one of my favorite films, The Earrings of Madame de … (1953), and are equally fine here.  Darrieux is the kind of actress that can express volumes with her eyes and was enchanting as a girl in the throes of first love. Boyer may never have been handsomer.  The film contains many good set pieces such as the scene at the ballet and a royal gala ball.  Litvak keeps his camera moving delightfully.  Recommended.

Extract – Eyes meeting at the ballet