Murder on Diamond Row (1937)

Murder on Diamond Row (AKA “The Squeaker”)Murder on Diamond Row Poster
Directed by William K. Howard
Written by Ted Berkman and Bryan Edgar Wallace based on a novel by Edgar Wallace
1937/UK
London Film Productions
First viewing

 

Tagline: Whose hand writes these messages of death?

This British programmer is nothing special.  I found the plot confusing and the solution unsatisfying in the extreme.  It is of note mainly for an early performance by Alistair Sim as a reporter.  I was going to comment that his Scottish accent was a bit much only to find out that Sim was born in Edinburgh!  What do I know?

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Clip – London nightlife 1937

Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937)

Humanity and Paper Balloons (“Ninjô kami fûsen”)humanity and paper balloons poster
Directed by Sadao Yamanaka
Written by Shintarô Mimura
1937/Japan
Photo Chemical Laboratories (Sony)/Toho Company/Zenshin-za

First viewing

 

“Lastly I say to my seniors and friends: Please make good movies.” From the last will and testament of director Yamanaka Sadao

I don’t really know whether this is a sad comedy or a funny tragedy.  Whatever it is, it is a small masterpiece.

As might be expected from such a film, the plot is quite complex, subtle and unexpected and I won’t give away too much here.

The story takes place during the Edo period (1603-1867) in a slum quarter of the capital.  It begins with the off-screen suicide of a samurai by hanging.  This inconveniences all the occupants of the crowded street happening on such a fine day and they grouse and complain.  Their irritation is eased however when the local gangster/hair dresser Shinza talks the landlord into giving a wake to lift the “curse” of the place with plenty of sake.

Unno, a ronin (unemployed samurai) and apparently a recovering alcoholic, lives in the quarter with his wife, who supports the couple by making paper balloons.  He spends much of the picture following a former colleague of his samurai father.  Unno is convinced that, if the man would just read a letter written to him by Unno’s deceased father, the man would get him employment.  He is not having much luck in securing an audience, however, as the man avoids him at every turn.  The man is busy arranging the marriage of a pawnbroker’s daughter to a high court official.

Meanwhile, Shinza is running an illegal gambling operation which infringes on the turf of a more powerful gangster.  He is repeatedly beaten up by the gangster and his gang, who are also employees of the pawnbroker.  Shinza finds a way to get even when he chances upon the pawnbroker’s daughter in a compromising position with the pawnbroker’s clerk.

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I loved this film.  I love the way the writer just drops you in the middle of things with no notion where they will lead and keeps your interest the whole way.  I love the many well-drawn characters and the way they are portrayed by a gifted ensemble cast.  It is really unlike anything else I have seen.  I suppose it most resembles a more comic version of Kurasawa’s The Lower Depths if one needs a reference point.   Highly recommended.

Humanity and Paper Balloons premiered the same day that Yamanaka was drafted into the Japanese army. He later died in a field hospital in Japanese-ruled Manchukuo, China. He was 28 years old.

I watched this on Hulu Plus.  It is also currently available on YouTube.

Clip – film footage begins at around 55 second mark – the wake

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

The Life of Emile Zolalife-of-emile-zola poster
Directed by William Dieterle
Written by Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg et al
1937/USA
Warner Bros.

First viewing
#119 of 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die

 

Émile Zola: What does it matter if an individual is shattered – if only justice is resurrected?

For some reason I was not wowed by this worthy, well-produced biopic.

The story covers the life of the naturalist French novelist starting with his days as a rebellious youth living in a garret with Paul Cezanne and continuing as he becomes a popular writer.  As Zola (Paul Muni) reaches a prosperous and complacent middle-age, he is approached by the wife (Gail Sondergaard) of Alfred Dreyfus, who has been wrongfully convicted of treason. Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is languishing on Devil’s Island while the General Staff of the French Army engages in cover-up after cover-up to protect their so-called honor.  Zola writes the famous “J’accuse” letter to the President of France and is tried for libel of the military.  With Louis Calhern as one of the Army conspirators.

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Well, there’s nothing exactly wrong with this film but I couldn’t get behind it.  I think it must be the screenplay that bothers me.  It is heavy on very earnest and impassioned speeches arguing for honor and justice.  This is all very well in its place but does not make for complex or interesting viewing.  I think the story may have lost much of it’s bite due to Jack Warner’s ban on the use of the word “Jew” in the dialogue so as not to lose the German market.  Since antisemitism was a key element of the entire Dreyfus affair, this omission waters down the plot.

For a better biopic with Paul Muni, I would go with The Life of Louis Pasteur.

The Life of Emile Zola was honored at the 1938 Academy Award ceremony with Oscars for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Schildkraut) and Best Writing (Screenplay).  It received seven additional nominations including for Best Actor (Muni), Best Director, and Best Art Direction.

Trailer

Stella Dallas (1937)

Stella Dallasstella dallas poster
Directed by King Vidor
Written by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman based on the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty
1937/USA
The Samuel Goldwyn Company

First viewing
#114 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 

 

Stella Martin ‘Stell’ Dallas: I’ve always been known to have a stack of style!

1937 was quite the year for tearjerkers.  First, Make Way for Tomorrow and now this.  It was impossible for me not to melt into a puddle at this story of mother love.

Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck) is the daughter of a mill hand but dreams of joining high society.  She looks set to fulfill her ambition when she meets and marries Stephen Dallas.(John Boles). They soon have a daughter, who is the light of both their lives.  But Stella is gregarious and her tastes are vulgar and she is incompatible with the conservative Stephen.  So they separate, and Stella raises her daughter Laurel alone.  Laurel (Anne Shirley) takes after her father but loves her mother sincerely.  The day comes when Stella’s flamboyance becomes an embarrassment.  With Marjorie Main as Stella’s mother and Alan Hale as Stella’s crass pal.

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I don’t know why I thought this would have a plot similar to Mildred Pierce, where the daughter betrays the mother.  I was so wrong.  The devoted daughter angle makes the story even more heartbreaking.  All the performances, save John Boles who is a bit of a stick, are fabulous.  This is probably Alan Hale’s career achievement.  He is just wonderful as the over-the-top clueless drunk.  Stanwyck never lets me down and here she is by turns hard-boiled and tender.  Vidor manages to make us really feel for people who are deemed ridiculous for being who they are.  Highly recommended.

Barbara Stanwyck was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar and Anne Shirley was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.  As much as I love Irene Dunne, it would have been hard to me not to vote for Stanwyck.  Instead, Luise Ranier won her second straight Best Actress Oscar for unconvincingly playing a Chinese peasant.

The film is currently available to rent on Amazon Watch Instant.

Clip – Barbara Stanwyck and Alan Hale

San Quentin (1937)

San QuentinSan Quentin Poster
Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Written by Peter Miller, Humphrey Cobb et al
1937/USA
First National Pictures/Warner Bros.

First viewing

 

Tagline: Out Of The “Pen” . . . Into The Jaws Of Death ! . . .

Humphrey Bogart rescues this clichéd prison drama.

Lt. Druggin (Barton Keyes) rules the San Quentin prison yard with an iron hand, sending elderly deaf men to solitary just because they can’t hear his orders.  The prison board doesn’t like his methods, so they hire ex-Army trainer Capt. Stephen Jameson (Pat O’Brien) to restore order and win the hearts of the men.  Meanwhile, Jameson falls in love with May (Ann Sheridan), then discovers hardened convict ‘Red’ Kennedy (Humphrey Bogart) is her younger brother.  Jameson takes an interest in Red and he is sent on the coveted road gang duty.  The men resent the special treatment but Red resents Jameson’s involvement with his sister even more.

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I thought this was over-earnest but Humphrey Bogart is always good.  The ending is an eye-roller.  It didn’t help that the DVD commentary was one of those blow-by-blow descriptions of what we can see for ourselves.

Re-release Trailer

 

Slaves in Bondage (1937)

Slaves in BondageSlaves in Bondage poster
Directed by Elmer Clifton
Written by Robert Dillon
1937/USA
Jay-Dee-Kay Productions

First viewing

 

Tagline: Society Beauties by Day! Party Girls by Night!

Sure this exploitation film is terrible, but is it terrible in a good way?

As our film opens, Mary Lou is screaming in a car.  She then opens the door to flee and ends up unconscious on the road, where she is coincidentally rescued by her housemate Dona’s wannabe reporter boyfriend Philip.  It turns out Mary Lou was abducted by white slavers on her way home from church.  Philip takes the story to the local newspaper and it becomes headline news.  He continues to investigate in hopes of landing a job and marrying Dona.

Naturally, Dona works as a manicurist at the beauty salon operated by Belle, the madam of the white slave house of ill-repute, as a front and her main customer is Jim Murray, the gang’s ringleader.  Jim has the hots for Dona and frames Philip for some crime involving marked bills to get him out of the way.  He then tricks Dona into meeting him at the bordello where Belle gives her a tour of the “merchandise” (the true selling-point of this film).  It all ends in a free-for-all featuring some of the worst fake  fist fighting in film history.   The story is peppered with some laughable vaudeville acts and some tame fan-dancing.

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OK, it goes without saying that nobody can act and the script is pathetic.  The film is not without its little joys.  I particularly liked the part where Philip is looking for a phone to call in the story about the shooting of one of the gang members and a man appears in a nearby window with a rotary phone in his hands.  The scenes at the bordello seemed to have been conceived in the imagination of an eleven-year old boy with a yen for lesbians. Over all, there is more naughtiness in 1936’s Marihuana (also reviewed here).  This one is funnier, though.

Trailer – do not watch if you are offended by hanky panky!

Double Wedding (1937)

Double WeddingDouble Wedding French Poster
Directed by Richard Thorpe
Written by Jo Swerling based on a play by Ferenc Molnar
1937/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

First viewing

 

Charles Lodge: Women don’t like noble, self-sacrificing men. Women are not civilized like we are. They like bloodshed. They like forceful men, like me.

I had never heard of this movie before, so it came as a delightful suprise.

Margit Agnew (Myrna Loy) is naturally bossy and has taken over her sister Irene’s life since their mother died.  Their mother selected milquetoast Waldo Beaver (John Beal) for Irene’s fiance and for four years he has been living with Margit and Irene without marrying.  Irene dreams of being an actress and she and Waldo have been working with some-time film director and bohemian painter Charles Lodge (William Powell).  Margit finds out and confronts Lodge but he does not scare easily.  Irene has become infatuated with Lodge and he uses the prospect of a marriage to see more of Margit.  With Jessie-Ralph as Margit’s free-thinking older friend and Edgar Kennedy as a bar owner.

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I thought this was hilarious.  I laughed out loud many times at the dialogue and antics of the characters.  I especially enjoyed John Beal’s deadpan comedy turn. Oddly, he was a dramatic actor and I can’t find much more of him to watch.  Of course, Powell and Loy are fantastic. There’s some slapstick but mostly this relies on pure wit.  It’s in the screwball comedy vein but not too frenetic.  I don’t want to spoil more by going on but I really felt like I had discovered a gem.  Recommended.

Clip

 

Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937)

Think Fast, Mr. MotoThink Fast, Mr. Moto Poster
Directed by Norman Foster
Written by Howard Ellis Smith and Norman Foster based on a story by J.P. Marquand
USA/1937
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
First viewing

 

Kentaro Moto: Half the world spends its time laughing at the other half, and both are fools.

This was the first in the series of eight Mr. Moto films with Peter Lorre.  Lorre is meant to simulate a Japanese with the addition of glasses and some funny teeth but he is still 100% Lorre, complete with German accent.  In this one, Mr. Moto has his eye on a diamond smuggling gang during a Pacific crossing en route to Shanghai.  It’s well-made B fare.  With Sig Ruman as a bad guy and J. Carrol Naish as an Arab henchman.

Think Fast, Mr. Moto 1

Trailer

 

Grand Illusion (1937)

Grand Illusion (“La grande illusion”) (1937)Grand Illusion Poster
Directed by Jean Renoir
Written by Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak
1937/France
Réalisation d’art cinématographique (RAC)

Repeat viewing
#106 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
IMDb users say 8.1/10; I say 10/10

 

Capt. von Rauffenstein: Boeldieu, I don’t know who will win this war, but whatever the outcome, it will mean the end of the Rauffensteins and the Boeldieus.

I consider Jean Renoir’s film about man’s humanity to man during World War I to be a masterpiece – full stop.  How lovely life would be if we could look at people in all their complexity the way Renoir does.

Aristocratic career officer Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and working class hero Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin) are shot down over Germany during an air reconnaissance run and taken to an officer’s prison camp.  There they bond with the officers quartered with them and work on a tunnel to escape.  The men enjoy many comforts thanks to food parcels shared with everyone by Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) and put on an amateur theatrical. Just before they can put their escape plan into effect, the men are all transferred to another camp.

Grand Illusion 1

Months later, after the two have repeatedly been caught trying to escape from several different camps, they are taken to be held in a heavily fortified and guarded castle.  There they meet again with the pilot who originally shot them down, the aristocrat Capt. von Rauffenstein, who has been injured during the war and is now commandant of the prison, a role he evidently loathes.  Von Rauffenstein forms a special bond with de Boeldieu, with whom he shares a common class and profession.  The rest of the film tells the story of a final escape planned by de Boldieu, Marechal and Rosenthal from the supposedly escape-proof castle.  With Julien Carette as an ex-music hall performer prisoner and Dita Parlo as a kind German farm woman.

Grand Illusion 2

The story makes this sound something like The Great Escape.  This is only superficially true.  The real subject of the film is the brotherhood of man.  Renoir takes a deep look at the relationships between his characters and finds them, both French and German, to be basically good.  When enemies in war relate to each other on an individual level, they find they are the same and become friends.  The grand illusion is that borders divide us.  But Renoir knows that the illusion creates war.  He specifically points out in a couple of different places that characters are deluded when they believe the war will end quickly or that this war can prevent future wars.

Grand Illusion 4I may be making this movie sound preachy.  Renoir avoids that entirely and treats his material with a lot of humor.  His interest is in the individual.  One of the most moving scenes in the film comes during the amateur theatrical at the first camp.  A group of English soldiers is performing in drag to an audience of French prisoners and their German guards.  Marechal bursts on to the stage to announce that the French have retaken one of their forts.  The audience spontaneously begins singing “La Marseillaise”, led by one of the British officers wearing a dress, his wig now removed.

There is quite a similar scene in Casablanca, when the French at Rick’s break out in “La Marseillaise.  In the Hollywood film, the scene is patriotic and theatrical.  Renoir’s scene is more moving to me, because he makes it so real and unexpected.
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This film began my great love affair with Jean Gabin. His natural understated performance is a wonder in a uniformly outstanding cast.  Gabin’s performance is often contrasted with Pierre Fresnay as illustrating the difference between a screen actor and a more mannered stage actor. I think Fresnay does not get enough credit.  He perfectly captures the public manners of the aristocrat he is playing.  Eric von Stroheim’s German accent is execrable but his performance is very touching.  This time through I paid particular attention to Joseph Kosma’s fantastic score which only adds to the riches of the production.

Grand Illusion was the first foreign language film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

75th Anniversary Restoration Trailer

 

Black Legion (1937)

Black LegionBlack Legion Poster
Directed by Archie Mayo
Written by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines based on a story by Robert Lord
1937/USA
Warner Bros.

First viewing

Humphrey Bogart had one of his first leading roles in Black Legion, the story of a working man seduced by a Ku Klux Clan-style organization.

Frank Taylor (Bogart) is known as the best machine operator in the shop, at least by his friends.  The men kid Joe Dombrowski for always having his nose in a book.  When a job as foreman opens up, Frank goes shopping for a new car.  But the job goes to Joe and Frank is outraged.  Frank becomes easy prey to the Black Legion, a secret organization advocating “America for Americans” and terrorizing foreigners.  After they chase Dombrowski and his father out of town, Frank gets the coveted job. Soon, however, his life is in a tailspin and Frank discovers that it is far easier to join the Legion than to leave it. With Dick Foran as Frank’s friend Joe and Ann Sheridan as Joe’s girl.

Black Legion 1

This is a good solid Warner Brothers Depression-era social issues film.  Bogart is very good.  There are a lot of good 1937 details, such as that Frank is looking at an economical car that gets 18 miles per gallon.

Trailer