High Voltage

Gasser

High Voltage (1929)

High Voltage (1929)

In one of her first talking roles, Carole Lombard steals the show as a sassy convict in High Voltage. Not quite in tune with the comedienne she would be known as, Lombard uses her looks and attitude to create a character desired by two men: her police escort and another criminal.

Lombard’s Billie with Detective Dan Egan (Owen Moore) are two of four passengers on a bus traversing the snowy wilderness. The jolly yet overly confident stage driver Gus (Billy Bevan) gets the vehicle stuck in several feet of snow just ahead of a storm. Seeing no other option, the party trudges through the white terrain to a small church house spotted in the distance.

The travellers discover upon arrival that they are not alone. Another man, Bill (William Boyd) has been hiding out in the building as he avoids a warrant for arrest. To the new arrivals, however, he is merely some hobo. Bill has a stash of food he is reluctant to share with the new tenants, but agrees to ration the food out for them over what is presumed to be at least a 10-day stint.

It does not take long for Billie to become friendly with Bill, much to the chagrin of Egan, who not only wants to ensure he can deliver the escaped prisoner but seems to have romantic ideas of his own. Billie also takes a liking to the other woman in the group, Diane (Diane Ellis). Also in the church is a banker, Milton (Phillips Smalley). Cabin fever often gets the best of the male characters, some of whose brash personalities are an existing obstacle to harmony.

As the days go on and the food and firewood becomes scarce, Billie and Bill decide to make a run for a ranger station while the others sleep, thus allowing both to escape their raps and be together. Diane falls ill, however, and Billie struggles with her sense of loyalty to the young woman. As the couple steps outside to make their escape –which Detective Egan has noticed– they spot a plane circling overhead attempting to find the lost bus party. The criminals return to their companions to help flag down the plane. The aircraft drops a food parcel and a note saying tractors are on their way to free the group from the snow.

The lovers realize their doomed fate, but Detective Egan attempts to throw away Billie’s warrant and Bill’s “wanted” poster. Bill retrieves the papers and returns them to the officer, thus securing the duo’s imprisonment but with the intention of a future reunion.

High Voltage is not a bad movie. The DVD quality on sound and picture was a low, but the story and both Boyd and Lombard’s performances were worth watching. The poor picture makes it difficult at times to discern the difference among the male actors at times, but one only needs to keep Egan and Bill straight to be able to follow the plot. Unlike the male actors, Lombard pops from the screen with her white blonde hair and dark makeup. She’s sexy and sassy and relatively likeable in the low-class role.

One disappointing story element involves both Diane and Gus falling through the ice while the group is outside getting some fresh air and exercise. The individuals are retrieved and act as though they have endured nothing more than a cold swim. As we know today, the circumstances were likely to spell death given the lack of dry clothes or adequate heating.

Run, Girl, Run

Ring a Ding Ding

When trying to work my way through the lists of movies in which my favorite stars appear, I find myself unendingly frustrated by the often extensive number of pictures made before 1929, ie. the silent era. Silent films, although regularly featured on TCM, nevertheless are low on the priority list in terms of availability to the public. Even worse are the silent shorts, which stars like Carole Lombard tallied up quickly in the early days of filmmaking. TCM thankfully came through for me in playing that star’s Run, Girl, Run, 30-minute short she made under producer Mack Sennett. Lombard was a part of his company and learned the ways of comedy under his tutelage. Read more about it at

Lombard, with her glorious good looks, plays here as she often did, the pretty girl with a boyfriend. She attends a girls’ boarding school that focuses on athletics, particularly track and field, and might be the star runner among her other lofty titles. Despite being in the glamorous role, Lombard still manages to solicit some laugh from us, but the majority of comedy credit lies with costar Daphne Pollard as the coach.

Pollard is short and small but makes clear to the audience right off that she is not one to be trifled with. The actress uses great physical comedy to elicit the majority of the movie’s laughs, such as when running toward a hurdle her sweater inches its way down until it has the effect of a potato sack.

After an initial scene of the girl athletes training, evening arrives and Lombard’s Norma attempts to sneak out to meet her sweetheart. The coach catches her in the hall, brings the young woman into her room, and after some arguing, strips the girl and puts her to bed. To ensure she will not escape to the beau outside, the coach holds Norma’s hand as they fall asleep. The boyfriend, however, helps Norma to replace her hand with an inflated rubber glove, which has the coach duped until the dean awakes her.

Following the night’s shenanigans, the girls face a rival school and the coach feels the pressure of the dean’s threat to fire her if the team loses. Norma narrowly loses one race because she powders her nose en route but pulls through in the end.

I find that photographs of Lombard from early in her career often do not look like the woman we came to know through the talking picture days. That is also the case in Run, Girl, Run, which required some eye squinting to determine the lead was in fact Lombard. Although the picture shown on TCM had new intertitles, the actual film was of a fair quality also hindering my ability to make a positive ID.

Run, Girl, Run was a fun movie even if Lombard wasn’t the best part. I like it better than Matchmaking Mama that had enough other characters for Lombard to get a bit lost on screen.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Wowza!

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)

Alfred Hitchcock is most popularly known today as the “master of suspense”, and rightfully so. Most people remember him for the drama of his thrillers and some find his pictures terrifying. What is perhaps ignored by the average viewer, however, is the man’s astute sense of humor.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith was the only movie Hitchcock made in America that was strictly a comedy with no suspense whatever. This was not his only venture into the genre, however, as many of his early English films were suspense-free. In all Hitchcock flicks, however, the viewer can find evidence of “Hitchcockian humor”, many times slipped in under the nose of the Hayes Office. Much of the master’s humor related to sexual innuendo, and the director was constantly pushing the envelope to see what he could get away with under the Production Code. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is one movie that is all about what consists of proper behavior for an unmarried couple, even if they’ve been married before.

Perfectly paired are Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard as Ann and David Smith. The flick opens with the servants wondering what is going on in the couple’s bedroom, where they have been holed up for three days. The duo has a policy of never leaving their bedroom until an argument has been resolved, David’s job as a lawyer be damned. We come in just in time to see the couple rekindle their affection, but over breakfast, Ann insists on another of their traditions: asking a question to which David must give a totally honest answer. The question is: If you could do it over again, would you marry me. The answer: no.

This answer becomes particularly important when later that day David learns that his marriage to Ann is not legal because of a mix up with the way the county and state in which they were married provided the paperwork. The man who delivers the news, Mr. Deever (Charles Halton), knew Ann when she was a girl and so drops by the home to give her the information. Ann is convinced David will marry her right away, but in trying to make a big surprise of the situation, he does not. That leads to Ann furiously throwing her non-husband out of their apartment and returning to her maiden name and life.

The remainder of the story involves David fighting to get Ann back while each tries to make the other jealous. Ann does this by dating David’s law practice partner (Gene Raymond). Both are too stubborn and too conniving to relinquish control until finally their games land each in the other’s arms.

The fun in Mr. and Mrs. Smith is not just the almost screwball-style of acting our stars bring to the screen –I’ll get to that momentarily– but the moral questions it raises. Hitchcock loved to create circumstances in his movies when an unmarried couple find themselves forced to share a bedroom (see The 39 Steps and Spellbound). In this case the viewer cannot help but wonder about just how wrong it was that the two have been sharing a bed for three years and whether they can continue to do so without redoing their vows. This movie could obviously never be made today and make any sort of sense.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is pure gold for me. With my two favorite actors in the lead paired with my favorite director, the movie cannot go wrong. Lombard is as zany as she is in My Man Godfrey, although, her character is more on the sane side in this case. Montgomery really brings out his comedic side as well, both in dialogue and physically. The lines are so well written with such subtle humor and innuendo that the more you pay attention the funnier the movie is. I could watch it everyday.

Twentieth Century

Twentieth Century (1934)

Wowza!

     I have heard Twentieth Century sometimes referred to as the first screwball comedy. Whether it technically was or not, this flick and its leading lady certainly embody what we have come to associate with the genre. Carole Lombard would reign in such nonsensical films, which make up what I consider the best of her work.

     In this “movie about a train”, as I like to call it, Lombard and John Barrymore are theater actors/director who spend nearly the entire picture making scenes by being as dramatic as any role they might have the chance to play. The latter half of the movie takes place in the small confines of a train, the Twentieth Century.

     John Barrymore plays Oscar Jaffe, a Broadway director, who takes an unknown Mildred Plotka and turns her into the star Lily Garland (Lombard). Our first encounter with the characters has Jaffe fighting to keep his discovery in the play while battling to get her to perform correctly. He uses chalk to draw the movements she should take during a scene to the point that an undiscernable amount of lines mark the stage floor. He also elicits an appropriate scream from her for one scene by sticking the lady’s rear end with a pin. Lily becomes a hit, however, and on opening night Jaffe showers her with praise and speaks of how above him she is now until the woman begs for his companionship, as was his plan.

     When next we see the couple, Lily is refusing to accept Jaffe’s calls and is throwing a fit in her lavish New York apartment while telling Jaffe press agent Owen O’Malley (Roscoe Karns) she wants to end her relationship with the man. When Jaffe arrives at the home, he solemnly swears he will kill himself by jumping from the window, but the couple reconciles when Jaffe swears not to be possessive.

     After two more successful plays together, Lily finally dumps the director when she discovers he has been tapping her phone line and has hired a P.I. to follow her around. Without the actress who has gone to Hollywood, Jaffe’s stage success falters. He is escaping a failing show and its related debt in Chicago when he boards the Twentieth Century back to New York. At a stop along the way, Lily also boards, with her beau (Ralph Forbes),  and unknowingly takes the room beside Jaffe’s.

    The two are outwardly livid as they learn of each other’s presence and put on big shows of distress. Jaffe plots to lure Lily back to his theater by offering her the role of Mary Magdalene in the passion play. Jaffe wants to make the show and is certain he could gain financing with Lily’s name on a contract, but she is not so easily won over. The movie closes on Jaffe drawing chalk lines on a stage dictating Lily’s movements.

     Twentieth Century is stuffed full of witty lines and little jokes mixed in among the fast-paced dialogue. A number of side characters also color the picture, such as the escaped mental patient (Etienne Girardot) who has been plastering the train with stickers reading “Repent Now” and driving some passengers to tears because of this “outrage.”

     Lombard and Barrymore play their characters so melodramatically that rarely are we able to glimpse Lily and Jaffe’s true nature beneath the dramatic shows they put on for all around them. Lily mourns saying farewell to her boyfriend before becoming instantly annoyed when he refuses to leave and instead travels with her. Lily and Jaffe have no redeeming qualities but we cannot help but love them. Both are too selfish for us to want either to get his or her way, but the ending perhaps gives them what they deserve: each other.

The Racketeer

The Racketeer (1929)

Dullsville

     Talking pictures revealed many flaws about the silent movie stars audiences had idolized. Although Carole Lombard masterfully transitioned into talkies, it’s a wonder the remainder of the cast in The Racketeer had careers at all. This was among Lombard’s first sound pictures, as was true for most actors in 1929 when the technique really took hold. Despite what was a poor-quality print aired on TCM (we should be grateful to have access to it at all), I was able to determine that Lombard and her leading man Robert Armstrong were about the only ones on screen with any acting talent.

    We open on a city street where a man attempts to play the violin but can barely hold himself up out of malnutrition and poor health. A big shot saunters up as a cop is questioning the man and insists the guy cannot be arrested if he has $50 in his pocket, and thus provides the downtrodden musician with a bit of charity. Just as this big shot, racketeer Keane (Armstrong), walks away, he sees a blonde in a cab notice the nearly unconscious musician and help him into the hack as though she knows him.

     Keane later sees this blonde Rhoda (Lombard) at a gambling party. She arrives and the whispers begin as we learn that she had left her wealthy husband for a musician she was madly in love with only to end up penniless. She joins Keane’s table and plays many a good hand of poker. In one instance, however, the desperate woman cheats and only Keane notices and defends her against the others’ suspicions.

     Keane comes around to visit Rhoda, who is trying to nurse back to health her long-lost alcoholic lover Tony (Roland Drew), and the two start a relationship that allows Rhoda to have some financial stability and care for the man she loves –at least until he’s well enough to tell her to leave. The conflict arises over whether she should choose her former love or her new comfortable life and we too are not sure who is the best fit.

    Besides the quality of this film being in desperate need of remastering, the acting and dialogue delivery is poor at best. Most characters give awkward and unnatural performances and let Lombard and Armstrong carry the movie. Lombard uses many of her signature facial expressions here although in excess. I cannot recommend this flick for everyday watching but forced myself through it merely because of a devotion to Lombard.

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford

Gasser

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936)

     My favorite women are those beautiful stars who make me laugh. These actresses seemed to be drawn to co-starring with the enduringly funny William Powell just as much as I am drawn to them. Myrna Loy made an endless number of features opposite Powell and Carole Lombard starred with and married the man. The Ex-Mrs. Bradford is my latest find in humorous Powell pairings, this time with the fantastic comedienne Jean Arthur.

 
     Powell falls back into his reluctant detective role for The Ex-Mrs. Bradford in playing doctor/surgeon Lawrence Bradford. Arthur is his ex-wife Paula who is a murder mystery novelist and often got her husband mixed into real-life murders. Despite being divorced, she again ropes him into an adventure to solve the case of a dead jockey.
 
     This jockey died during a race and was thought to have been killed from the throw from his horse, yet he suffered no broken bones suggesting he was dead when he hit the ground. Bradford performs an autopsy and finds only a strange substance that Paula later has identified as gelatin. After discussions with horse trainer Mike North (Frank M. Thomas) and some strange phone calls and a villain in his apartment, Lawrence finds himself in deeper than he intended. Things get worse when a dead Mike North rings his doorbell just before the police arrive.
 
     Bradford goes somewhat on the lam as he tries to track down the necessary clues to solve both murders and absolve himself. What he finds are half a dozen suspects, another corpse and a complex plot involving horse gambling.
 
     The Ex-Mrs. Bradford is one of those mysteries that is nearly impossible to follow because there are far too many names being flung about and too few faces to go with them. Bradford himself does not even know the actual murderer until we do as he uses a typical device of inviting all the suspects to an exclusive party at his home. And like many mysteries, it does not matter so much who the murderer is as we are more interested in how the crime was committed and why.
 
     Like Loy before her, Arthur makes a great companion for a sleuth because she is not frightened by the grizzly details that accompany murder cases. As her husband twice struggles on the ground with a culprit, she lends her support by hurling a vase at the bad guy’s head only to miss and take out her beloved instead. The blonde is full of pep and smarts in addition to being delightful arm candy for the hero. The actual ex-wife aspect of the plot is essentially unnecessary in the grand scheme of things as we see from the start how well suited the duo are for one another and assume they will reunite. Perhaps this device works well as a title for the film and differentiated it from the Thin Man  movies Powell had already popularized, one of which was also released in 1936.
 
     Arthur was only at the start of her rise to grand stardom having appeared in her smash hit Mr. Deeds Goes to Town earlier that year. She had appeared in supporting roles alongside Powell and he was impressed with her, leading to his agreement to be loaned out for this collaboration. The film was highly successful as is no surprise given the great chemistry between the couple.

Lady by Choice

Gasser

Lady by Choice (1934)

     I find it hard to think of Carole Lombard as anything but sweet. She was gorgeous and at times sexy, but never convincingly conveyed the scandalously provocative women she is meant to embody in Lady by Choice. Even the poster for this movie makes Lombard look more like Jean Harlow than herself.

     Lombard is fan dancer Alabam Lee who at the film’s start is tickled pink by the sass an old woman gives Judge Daly (Walter Connolly) when asked about her drunk and disorderly charges. Alabam is in the courtroom waiting for her own sentence for the illegal dancing she does. Not long after, looking to boost her image, Alabam’s manager arranges for the woman to adopt a mother on mother’s day. When visiting a rest home, who should Alabam find, but that old woman, Patsy (May Robson). Once permanently settled in this young woman’s life, Patsy starts to look out for Alabam’s interests and that includes not only lying about some large gambling profits she will share (calling it an inheritance) but she reveals that the dancer’s manager  Front O’Malley (Raymond Walburn) has been cheating her out of the appropriate share of her dancer salary. Booting him to the curb, Patsy takes over as Alabam’s manager and tries to turn her into a legitimate singer/dancer.

     Along the way, Alabam gets friendly with Johnny Mills (Roger Pryor), who has always looked out for Patsy because his deceased father was in love with her. Finding she is about to be broke, Alabam thinks marrying this wealthy man might be a good plan, but her emotions get the best of her and money no longer sounds like the future she wants.

     It is hard to know to whom the title Lady by Choice refers. Both Patsy and Alabam are tramps of a sort at the film’s start and are transformed either by money or by affection. May Robson is almost unbelievable in her part only because she makes such a stark transition from a down-and-out drunkard looking out for her own best interests to a motherly figure who wants only to protect Alabam. Watching her, I always have the sneaking suspicion she has some ulterior motive or will abscond with Alabam’s jewelry or other valuable possession. The romance played by Lombard and Pryor is much easier to swallow. The sweet Lombard we all know comes shining through as she makes her beau promise to be penniless if they are to marry. Pryor also makes a nice romantic object for the Alabam character because he is not the most attractive man in Hollywood, which makes more genuine his girlfriend’s feelings.

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