Side Show

Dullsville side show

It seems rare that a really good movie comes out of a story about a travelling circus. The Greatest Show on Earth did it with aplomb, but monstrosities such as Berserk and I’m No Angel leave much to be desired. Then there are the horror movies, such as Freaks,  that achieved their aim well but certainly strayed from the joy we are supposed to associate with circuses. Add to the list of disappointments today’s review: Side Show.

Starring Winnie Lightner as Pat, the jack of all trades at the circus, the story follows the lives of circus sideshow employees as they travel among several towns. The movie only depicts the sideshows –those acts happening outside the big top in the open air and smaller tents of their own. Pat, who resembles a female Karl Malden, displays her important role among the cast of characters when she talks down the drunken owner of the circus, Pop Gowdy (Guy Kibbee). Finances are tight for the circus and some members of the crew aren’t being paid on time.

Pat is in love with Joe (Donald Cook), the “barker” who goes around shouting at patrons to view this or that act. It is clear, however, that Joe does not care as intensely for Pat, despite his promise of love. When Pat’s younger and more beautiful sister Irene (Evalyn Knapp) visits, Joe gropes her while “guessing” her weight before knowing who she is. The attraction is imminent, and Irene wants to stay on with the circus despite Pat’s wishes.

Pat is pretty naive of the budding romance –having hidden her relationship with Joe from her sister– and inadvertently advances it. She sends Irene off alone with Joe to distract him while she arranges a big birthday event. When the duo fail to return in time to see any of the festivities, she is sorely disappointed. It looks like Joe might end up marrying Irene, but he returns to Pat in the end.

The central plot of Side Show is the recounting of a troubled romance with a happy ending. The problem is at no point do we think Joe truly loves Pat enough to marry her. Nor can we picture Lightner as a very good romantic object. She is masculine both in look and in personality –basically running the circus. I found all of the characters difficult to sympathize with.

Adding some light to the cast is Charles Buttersworth who is just another hand at the circus. He is full of one liners, that although they get old, at least add some entertainment value to the movie. His character continually professes his love and desire to marry Pat, and frankly, I would have been happier seeing the woman choose him in the end –if that tells you anything about Cook.

Winner Take All

Dullsville

Winner Take All (1932)

     I do not think there is any denying that James Cagney was a splendid actor. The trouble with parts of his career, however, was that the studio did not treat him very well and often type cast him into gangster and tough-guy roles. Winner Takes All was his first comedy that also puts the actor in a rough role, and despite being a rather lousy picture, it was highly successful, thus proving to Warner Bros. that the best formula for a Cagney picture was a combination of a bully personality combined with light-hearted subject matter.

     The only reason to watch Winner Takes All is Cagney’s performance in it; the plot and the acting of our main ladies really drag the show down. Our hero is Jim Kane, a boxer who at the film’s opening announces he needs a rest –and the cash to finance it– and receives a shower of money from a large boxing match audience. He takes off for a desert resort where he immediately meets young widow Peggy (Marian Nixon) and her son Dickie (Dickie Moore) and falls for her. He also anonymously pays for her stay at the resort where her son is recuperating. To get the dough, however, he had to enter a local boxing match and win, thus precipitating rumors he would be permanently returning to the ring.

     Before leaving for Chicago to restart his career, Jim promises to marry Peggy, but after his first match he is approached by a blonde society girl Joan, played by Virginia Bruce. From here on out it is as if Peggy never existed as the beat-up Jim tries continuously to get affection from Joan, who, along with her friends, see the man as a mere amusement. Jim so blindly runs after Joan’s skirts, up to completing a match swiftly to prevent the gal from leaving on a boat, that he does not see he’s been played for a chump. Not until another man wanders into Joan’s cabin on the ship does he finally realize the effort is fruitless and returns to Peggy.

     My largest complaint about the plot is that despite having some real emotional tie with good-girl Peggy, Jim convinces himself that he wants Joan and will marry her up until he finally realizes he’s been cast aside. Only then does he return to the previous girl and tell her his interest in another was a mere joke. Most stories with such a plot would have the protagonist realize the former girl is better than the latter, but here she is merely a consolation prize.

     What makes Winner Take All tolerable, however, is the great character Cagney creates. From the very start we see the mug talking through a crooked mouth as his profession has created a damaged man. As he gets back into the game, Cagney’s makeup worsens his face with a crooked and mashed up nose and bloated ear with duck lips to boot. He talks as though he has cotton in his mouth and we see the downside of such a career. Most prize-fighting pictures up to this point shielded audiences from this reality but Cagney took it on with aplomb. He also makes a good show when acting in the ring. His dancer background allowed him to easily take on the fast footwork of a boxer, and the man studied how to take and give pulled punches, which results in a highly authentic-looking performance. I would recommend Winner Take All on Cagney’s merits but warn that one should not have high hopes for the plot or peripheral performances.

Source: James Cagney (Applause Legends) by Richard Scickel

Man of the World

Dullsville

Man of the World (1931)

     Some actors are meant for comedy, some for drama. William Powell and Carole Lombard separately are quite adept at both, but it seems a crime to pair them together in a drama. The duo made Man of the World the same year they would marry,  however briefly; although, their characters in this film do not discover as happy a fate.

     Powell is con man/blackmailer Michael Trevor. He has been living in Paris for four years after his career as a newspaperman in the U.S. was halted by some sort of scandal involving a woman and he “taking the fall.” He visits Harold (Guy Kibbee), who has been enjoying a business trip, and informs him the rascal publisher of an English-language scandal newspaper has nailed the man as having dinner with an unsavory woman. To avert the news getting out, Harold asks Michael to pay him off. Howard’s daughter, Mary (Lombard), is visiting Paris with a man she might one day commit to marry. She runs into Michael after the financial exchange but is ignorant of the transaction.

     With boyfriend Frank (Lawrence Gray), Mary runs into Michael at a restaurant and the group opt to wander to a non-tourist restaurant for a late meal and start up a friendship. Michael and his con pals Irene (Wynne Gibson) and Fred (George Chandler) see the friendship as the set up for another haul, and Michael reluctantly agrees to woo the young woman while her suitor is out of town.  The two fall in love, Michael for the first time, and the con man decides to tell her of his profession and give up the lifestyle. She is anything but taken aback by the news because she knows it will remain in his past. The trouble is, as Irene points out, that past will eventually catch up with Michael and he will land in jail. Ultimately, the two go their separate ways, Mary with Frank and Michael with Irene.

     One of five films Lombard had released in 1931 (and one of two with Powell), Man of the World has her as the usual good-girl glamour type, although I dislike the dark eye makeup that was typical style for the time but not what the actress would wear later on. Powell would play a charming criminal, also not atypical for him. The story, however, is short and a bit dull. The romance is poorly developed and the conflict minimal. I will give kudos, however, to the flick’s ending. Far be it for Hollywood to keep the subjects of a romantic plot away from each other at film’s close, but that is precisely what Man of the World does. Your typical romance would have had the couple finding some way to be together or randomly bumping into one another at the close, solidifying a relationship that would be doomed if it extended beyond the credits. To sum up, My Man Godfrey is the logical choice for a Lombard-Powell pairing and an option that should not be strayed from.

Dames

Dullsville

Dames (1934)

     I have mentioned before that although I consider myself a fan of musicals, I am particular about which strike my fancy. I am going to now probably commit the greatest sin any “musical fan” can and say that Busby Berkeley musicals do not thrill me. Although Dames might be a lesser of the Berkeley movies to which his overly elaborate choreography and direction was contributed, I have also seen the Gold Digger movies and 42nd Street and my position stands.

       I particularly dislike the cast combination that appears in Dames and others. Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondell would also appear in Gold Diggers of 1933  and Footlight Parade, both of which were released the previous year and both of which have Berkeley behind them. Nevermind that Blondell and Powell  or Powell and Keeler appear together in numerous other musicals. The logical assumption for this combination of actors would be that they have great chemistry and work so well together, but that reasoning is considerably flawed. Firstly, Blondell has a horrible sing-talk approach to music that makes her utterly unsuitable for the genre, in my opinion, excluding the fact that she is also not a dancer in the traditional sense. Keeler, who is an adept hoofer, apparently also cannot sing because I failed to hear her utter a line in Dames. Powell’s voice makes him suited only  for musicals because, frankly, he puts off such a weak, unmanly air that he could never carry a leading role in any other genre. The artist type of character suits him perfectly, which is why he repeatedly appears as stage actors, songwriters and playwriters. I have consumed too many of these crummy musicals in the past year or so and have had my fill of Powell and his failure to gain my sympathy.

     Dames is about Powell’s song and play writer who is the bad seed in a family of otherwise moral folks. His uncle looks down upon his profession, and opts to send a $10 million inheritance to another sect of the family, which includes Keeler’s character, who is 13th cousin to Powell, making their affair agreeable. The dilemma of the plot is to keep this rich uncle from discovering that Keeler will be in her boyfriend’s play, which of course indicates that her part of the family is equally sinful and unworthy of the money. Powell and Keeler really fail to pull of any sort of romantic feelings between their two characters. Keeler seems to affect such a smiling, emotionally barren facade as to suggest she’s on mind-numbing drugs. Powell, on the other hand, is too busy singing directly into the camera lens to convince the viewer he is not just going through the motions with his gal pal.

     Returning to my beef with Berkeley: Perhaps the trouble is that his creative work with concocting elaborate musical numbers that involved hundreds of dancers and difficult camerawork find themselves as the center of the film’s attention leaving the plot lines to suffer. His routines always seem to find themselves, probably deliberately, in movies about stage musicals. The problem is — and I’m sure I am over thinking this — that the routines he films in no way could be performed on a theater’s stage. The overwhelming number of people require far too much space to pull off a routine, the aerial cameraviews of creative dancer formations could never be seen by a theater audience member and the cutsie cuts between formations are the work of Hollywood editing, not something that could occur on the stage. Sure, I should just sit back and be in awe of the difficulty of the scenes Berkeley pulls off, but in telling the truth, I usually find myself bored. I appreciate that no one would even attempt this type of work in today’s movie industry, thanks to CGI, but hurry up already. This song is not very good and the nondancing has my mind wandering.

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