Osaka Elegy (1936)

Osaka Elegy (“Naniwa erejî”)Osaka Elegy Poster
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Written by Kenji Mizoguchi, Yoshikata Yoda and Tadashi Fujiwara
1936/Japan
Daiichi Eiga

First viewing

 

It’s not easy to “like” this thoroughly depressing film.  Nonetheless, it is darkly magnificent.

Mr. Asai is a whiny, complaining old man who gives his servant girls nothing but grief and is picked on by his wealthy wife.  Ayako (Isuzu Yamada) is a telephone operator who works for him.  Mr. Asai constantly propositions Ayako but she is in love with a co-worker.

Ayako’s spineless father has embezzled 300 yen from his company.  The company is threatening to prosecute unless he repays the money.  Although Ayako berates him mercilessly, she also desperately wants to get the money to save him from jail.  Her boyfriend cannot help her so she finally gives Mr. Asai what he wants.  She repays the company and Mr. Asai gives her father a job.  The affair is quickly discovered by Asai’s wife.

Later, Ayako gets money to help her brother with his tuition at university by promising her favors to another executive.  When she refuses to follow through, the executive gets her arrested.  Her boyfriend leaves her.  Her family disowns her and calls her an “ingrate”, not even acknowledging her help.  With Takashi Shimura (Ikuru, Seven Samurai) in a small role as a police inspector.

Osaka Elegy 2

Mizoguchi was the champion of suffering women throughout his career and Osaka Elegy is an early example of this trend.  The problem for me is that Ayako, though strong, is not particularly sympathetic.  While secretly planning to help, she is always very caustic to her family members.  She is mean to the executive.  So I had a nagging feeling the whole time that she brought a lot of this on herself.   On the other hand, I’m not Japanese and don’t know whether filial piety almost required Ayako to avoid shame on her family at all costs.  If so, her body was all she had to bargain with.  This might make anybody hard to get along with.

Whatever reservations I might have about the plot, the film itself cannot be faulted.  Ayako and her boss watch a wonderful Kabuki puppet performance with thematic ties to her plight that I really, really loved.

Lead actress Isuzu Yamada may be most famous for her chilling performance as Lady Asaji Washizu, the Lady Macbeth role in Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957).

Clip – ending

Our Relations (1936)

Our RelationsOur Relations poster
Directed by Harry Lachman
Written by Richard Connell, Felix Adler, et al
1936/USA
Hal Roach Studios/Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer
First viewing

 

Finn: [hands Ollie a bill] Here, have yourselves a fling. Ollie: A dollar? We can’t do much flinging on a dollar.

I found most of this uninspired until the very end when a sight gag involving Stan and Ollie bobbing around like roly-poly dolls with their feet in cement had me roaring  with laughter.

Stan and Ollie’s long-lost twin brothers Alf and Bertie are sailors.  Unbeknownst to our heroes they show up penniless in town and set in motion all kinds of nonsense involving mistaken identities and a valuable ringing belonging to the captain of the ship.  With Alan Hale as a beer-garden owner.

Laurel & Hardy

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Rembrandt (1936)

RembrandtRembrandt Poster
Directed by Alexander Korda
Written by Carl Zuckmayer, June Head, and Lajos Biró
1936/UK
London Film Productions

Repeat viewing

 

Rembrandt van Rijn: What is success? A soldier can reckon his success in victories, a merchant in money. But my world is insubstantial. I live in a beautiful, blinding, swirling mist.

This is a very good biography of the painter with a fine performance by Charles Laughton and beautiful costumes and art direction.

The story follows Rembrandt from about the time he lost his beloved wife Saska after his “The Night Watch” met with ridicule.  We see Rembrandt struggle with poverty and a nagging mistress (Gertrude Lawrence) while he continues to pursue a vision that few share.  He finds contentment toward the end of his life despite bankruptcy through the love and inspiration of former scullery maid Hendrickje (Elsa Lancaster).

Rembrandt 1

Charles Laughton is convincing as Rembrandt.  In the course of portraying the painter, he also has the opportunity to movingly read some selections from the Bible.  But the real star for me was the production design.  The settings, lighting, and costumes call to mind not only several Rembrandt masterpieces but works of other Dutch Masters such as Brueghel and Vermeer.  Recommended.

TV promo

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)

The Charge of the Light Brigadecharge of the light brigade poster
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Michael Jacoby and Rowland Leigh inspired by the poem by Tennyson
1936/USA
Warner Bros.

First viewing

 

When can their glory fade?/ O the wild charge they made!/ All the world wonder’d./ Honor the charge they made!/ Honor the Light Brigade,/ Noble six hundred! — Alfred Lord Tennyson “The Charge of the Light Brigade”

The war film is not a favorite genre of mine, but there is no question that this is an expertly made film of some power.  I don’t know if I could have watched it, however, if I had known ahead of time about the number of horses killed in filming the Charge.

This movie does not make any pretense of historical accuracy.  The regiment, characters, and incidents are all fictional.  The only thing that actually happened was the Charge itself, though not for the reasons or with the results claimed.

It is India, 1856.  As the movie begins, officials are telling war lord Surat Kahn that the stipend the British had been paying his father will cease.  Kahn nevertheless continues to entertain the party with a tiger hunt during which Major Geoffrey Vickers (Eroll Flynn) saves Kahn’s life.  We learn that the Russians would be only to glad to fill the gap left by the British.

Meanwhile, Geoffrey is engaged to his Colonel’s daughter Elsa Campbell (Olivia de Havilland).  Unfortunately, Elsa has fallen in love with Geoffrey’s brother Perry (Patric Knowles) while Geoffrey was away on duty.  When Perry tells Geoffrey about their love, he refuses to believe it.  For one reason or another, Geoffrey is always dragged elsewhere just as Elsa tries to talk to him.

Charge of the Light Brigade 2

Kahn waits until most of the men at the British garrison are away at manuevers and strikes the hopelessly undermanned fortress.  He offers surrender terms which the British are forced to accept and then massacres all the survivors of the initial attack except Elsa who is saved by Geoffrey.  Later, Geoffrey’s regiment is sent to the Crimea because it is there that they will find Kahn and, with luck, exact vengeance.   With David Niven as an officer, Donald Crisp as Elsa’s father, and just about every middle-aged British character actor in Hollywood at the time.

Charge of the Light Brigade 1

I liked this quite a bit.  All the acting was excellent and Michael Curtiz kept the action rolling along at a good pace.  The story picks up a lot when the focus shifts away from the love triangle to the fighting.  Unfortunately, Warner Bros. resorted to very cruel measures to get realistic battle footage.

Charge of the Light Brigade 3

Dozens of horses were killed during the making of this picture due to the use of trip wires in the Charge sequence.  This led to action by Congress to ensure the safety of animals in filmaking and the ASPCA to ban trip wires in its guidelines. Because of the public outcry about the scene, the film was never re-released by Warner Brothers.

After I read about this, I kept thinking about how awful it was to take an animal who had been trained to trust and obey its rider knowingly into harm’s way.  So sad.

Trailer

 

Fury (1936)

FuryFury Poster
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Bartlett Corbett and Fritz Lang based on a story by Norman Krasna
1936/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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.

Trailer

 

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
1936/UK
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).

man who could work miracles 1

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.

Trailer

 

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
1936/USA
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
1936/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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.

Trailer

 

 

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

Romeo and Julietromeo and juliet poster
Directed by George Cukor
Adapted by Talbot Jennings from the play by William Shakespeare
1936/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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.

Trailer

 

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
1936/France
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