2013 CAPA Summer Movie Series (Columbus, OH)

It’s my favorite time of year in central Ohio, or nearly. CAPA, our local arts organizing group, has announced its lineup for the 2013 Summer Movie Series held in Downtown Columbus’ historic Ohio Theatre. For those of you unfamiliar with this seasonal gem, the June 28 through Aug. 25 series features a plethora of classic movies shown in the theater that was originally built as a movie house and is now used for concerts, ballets, etc.

Among this year’s offerings are two Hitchcock movies, which you know delights me. The wonderfully amusing The Trouble with Harry, To Catch a Thief and the Jimmy Stewart rendition of The Man Who Knew Too Much will certainly be on my schedule.

Other prize showings include An American in Paris, Grand Hotel, Citizen Kane, Bonnie and Clyde, The Thin Man, 1974’s The Great Gatsby, and Touch of Evil.

I have been notoriously bad about achieving all the CAPA Summer Movie Attendance goals I have set in years past, and I won’t pretend this year will be any better. I do hope to at least catch the Hitchcock flicks, but I’ll admit The Man Who Knew Too Much won’t be at the top of my list.

Grand Hotel

Gasser

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel has the distinction of being the only movie to win the Best Picture Oscar and be nominated for nothing else. The fact that it drew no acting nominations is notable given the star-studded cast, but it is true that none of the actors really stands out. Perhaps they were all too evenly matched.

Grand Hotel endeavors to be a story about the comings and goings in a high-end Berlin hotel, but it belies its own motto –“Grand Hotel… always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”– in the events depicted for us. We are first introduced to the handful of characters the story follows via a series of edits between their respective phone calls in the hotel lobby. We learn Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) has only a few weeks to live and is blowing his life savings enjoying them in an expensive hotel. The Baron (John Barrymore) telephones an accomplice explaining a need for more funds and referencing a theft he intends to commit. General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery) is working to close a merger that will be lucrative for him by relies on his company’s partnership with a French firm. And famed Russian dancer Grusinskaya’s maid telephones to say the ballerina is ill.

The hotel acts as a catalyst to allow the overlapping of these various lives, who infinitely influence one another but then part as they do the hotel. Also entering into the scene is Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), a stenographer sent for by Preysing. Before he is ready for her to begin working on the merger documents, however, Flemm waits in the hall where she is approached by the Baron with amorous intent. They agree to meet the following evening for dinner and dancing. The Baron has previously met Kringelein and decided him a fine chap, creating a fast friendship. Kringelein approaches the couple in the hall and makes friends of Flemm as well. Also caught by Flemm’s looks is Preysing, once he’s ready for her to begin work.

Before the Baron can meet up with Flemm for a romantic evening, however, he will enter the room of dancer Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) to abscond with her pearls. He sneaks in through a balcony window –two rooms down from his– but finds himself trapped when the depressed ballerina abruptly returns. In the dark room he sees her contemplating suicide and opts to intervene. In the ensuing hours, the two fall in love.

Flemm has by this time fallen in love with the Baron and finds herself disappointed in his new mood. Grusinskaya is leaving for Italy in a day and in order to accompany her, he must come up with money for train fare, a subject making him rather depressed. Flemm occupies herself in looking after the ailing Kringelein and in resisting the advances of Preysing. This businessman happens to own the factory in which Kringelein once worked and proves himself a royal ass by mistreating him in the hotel. Flemm will nevertheless consider leaving town on the arm of Preysing, but ultimately walks out the doors of the Grand Hotel with another man.

Grand Hotel, which was based on a play, is a great film from a technical standpoint as well as the somewhat esoteric relevance of its story. To the average viewer, the movie comes off as rather boring with seemingly no moral or sense of satisfaction at the close. But the point of the plot is about the random meeting of people and the indelible effect they have on one another. Flemm enters the hotel a stenographer and leaves as a mistress of sorts. Grusinskaya enters horribly depressed with her career faltering and leaves on cloud nine after a fantastic performence the night before. Preysing enters on the verge of a profitable deal and leaves in worse than ruin. Only Kringelein enters and exits with equal levels of joy; although, he departs with more money and company than he arrived. If there is any moral center to the story, it is Kringelein.

As I mentioned, the acting is fine, but you could have guessed that by the cast. This is often thought of as a great Garbo movie, but she does not appear in at least half of the action. Her line “I want to be alone” is well remembered, but not particularly meaningful. Garbo was a big star at this point, but audiences were taking a liking to Crawford by this time as well. The two never appear on screen together and had little to do with each other on set especially since Garbo’s scenes were shot on a separate soundstage closed to visitors. Director Edmund Goulding once described the movie as two stories, both centered around women in crisis –Garbo’s depressed dancer and Crawford’s stenographer trying to scrape her way to a better life– with the Baron to connect the plots. I’m not sure I see the movie in that way because I do not view Flemm as a woman in crisis but as a distinctly different type of person bouncing among our main characters.

  • Grand Hotel is set for 9:45 p.m. ET Feb. 15 on TCM.

Weekend’s Best Bet Continued…

In running through TCM’s lineup for this weekend, I came across far too many good flicks to list in my regular viewing recommendations in the left column. Not only are there a number of gems showing this weekend, but I have already written about a few them. So click on the links below to learn more about the movies and consider checking them out yourself this weekend. P.S. All times are Eastern Standard Time and on the U.S. programming schedule.

The Public Enemy
6 am Saturday on TCM
James Cagney, Jean Harlow

The Saint Strikes Back
noon Saturday on TCM
George Sanders, Wendy Barrie

Dinner at Eight 
8 pm Saturday on TCM
John Barrymore, Marie Dressler

The Thin Man
10 pm Saturday on TCM
William Powell, Myrna Loy

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 
2 am Sunday on TCM
Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

 San Francisco
8 am Sunday on TCM
Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald

A Day at the Races
10 am Sunday on TCM
The Marx Brothers

Witness for the Prosecution
noon Sunday on TCM
Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power

Night Flight

Ring a Ding Ding

Night Flight (1933)

I had never heard of 1933’s Night Flight when I stumbled upon it in a sales pile at Barnes & Noble a couple weeks ago. I’ve tried to train myself not to buy movies on a whim without knowing whether they are good, but the cast for this one was enough to secure its purchase. Besides love of my life Robert Montgomery, the cast also features John and Lionel Barrymore, Myrna Loy and Clark Gable, to name a few.

The story starts with a plot element that we will all but forget before the picture is over. A child at a hospital in Rio de Janeiro teeters on the verge of death from a virus, but doctors assure his mother that because of a new night flight schedule, the life-saving serum he needs can be delivered from across the continent by the next morning.

Now move on to the main story: the plight of those pilots tasked with the treacherous duty of flying mail planes across South America. The trip is dangerous enough during the daytime as Auguste (Montgomery) discovers as he flies the serum and other packages from Santiago, Chile ,to Buenos Aires. In Buenos Aires is the headquarters of the delivery outfit where company president A. Riviere (John Barrymore) stressfully monitors all pilots’ progress. Auguste hits a nasty storm going over the mountains and at one point gets sucked down close to the rough terrain but thankfully makes it to his destination alive.

The package in question and other mail will not leave immediately for Rio de Janeiro from Buenos Aires because another flight is due just in time to ensure the load will leave by midnight. Flying that plane is Gable’s Jules. We will never see him outside of his vehicle and he has surprisingly little dialogue because he communicates with his radio operator via notepad, sending messages to headquarters. His path takes him from southern Chile to Buenos Aires, but he and his radio man encounter a surprise rain storm en route. They are thrown off course and also must battle a fleeting fuel supply. Jules’ wife, Simone (Helen Hayes), knows her husband’s schedule well and becomes distraught when he is late.

A “Brazilian Pilot” (William Gargan) is aroused from his sleep to take the night flight to Rio de Janeiro, leaving worrying wife (Loy) behind. He thinks the only value of night flight is to allow someone in France to get a post card two days earlier than normal, not realizing he is carrying a life-saving serum.

The bulk of the acting heft in Night Flight comes from the two Barrymores. John is a hard-nosed businessman who defies the company board in insisting on the overnight program. Lionel comes in as an “inspector” of some sort who is there as a counterpoint to Riviere’s tough tactics, trying to draw compassion from the man.

All scenes with John take place in his office, a dark room that is literally only lighted by “moonlight” from outside and a desk lamp. The darkness of most scenes in the picture leaves the audience feeling the weight of the night as much as the pilots do. We yearn for the dawn to bring with it safety in the same way they do. The office scenes are also often shot from waist height across the room or closeup low angles. This leaves the viewer feeling less like he is in the scene with the characters and more as an unwelcome spectator.

As with all movies featuring flight, Night Flight contains impressive footage of aerial maneuvering. Day for night shooting was apparently used for the flick, but unlike most picture that take this approach, the fakeness of night was unnoticeable.

The movie was apparently one of Gable’s lowest-grossing pictures. Interestingly, he is scarcely in it. He utters only a few lines of actual dialogue and is never seen outside his plane. A surprisingly small role for such a big star, but given the magnitude of the remainder of the cast, it might be understandable.

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.

Dinner at Eight

Ring a Ding Ding

Dinner at Eight (1934)

     I did not know going into Dinner at Eight just how depressing it was going to be. The presence of Jean Harlow and Billie Burke in particular among the all-star cast had me expecting a comedy, as it seems dinner-centered movies are apt to be. But the meal in this flick does not materialize until after the picture’s close, so the story instead follows the events that lead up to it.

     Besides Burke’s character of Mrs. Millicent Jordan, who is the dinner’s hostess, none of the characters’ stories have anything to do with the affair, other than that they are all set to attend it. Set in the heart of the depression, we watch sadly as all suffer their personal disasters. Millicent’s husband Oliver, played by Lionel Barrymore, owns a shipping company that will cancel its first voyage because it carries too little cargo to be worthwhile. He has solicited the help of the prosperous Larry Packard (Wallace Beery) and asks him to hold some company stock until a loan can be repaid. Also in town from England is the down-and-out stage actress Carlotta (Marie Dressler), with whom Oliver was once in love and still admires. She holds some of the company stock and wants to unload it because of her own financial troubles, but Oliver begs her not to for fear of losing control of the firm.

     Millicent has meanwhile invited Packard and his floozy wife Kitty (Harlow) to the dinner at her husband’s request and in needing to fill some empty seats. Kitty pounces on the opportunity to schmooze with classy people, while Packard only agrees because the dinner is being thrown for an influential English couple. Kitty is having an affair with a Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe) whose wife, we discover, knows of his indiscretions. The couple are also attending the meal. Lastly, the Jordan’s daughter Paula (Madge Evans) will be joined by her fiancée at the occasion but is secretly in love with an actor more than twice her age: John Barrymore‘s Larry Renault. This drunkard is trying to make a go at stage performing because the advent of sound has made him undesirable in Hollywood. He learns, however, that his career is essentially ended.

     Although some of the characters’ affairs overlap, all their plights are separate. Despite a love for Larry being Paula’s trouble in the face of a forthcoming wedding, Larry’s problems are totally absent the girl. Possibly the only person not facing doom is Harlow as Kitty. She merely sees the dinner as a social step-ladder and she has not yet learned the doctor is returning his devotion to his wife. Kitty quarrels and physically fights with her husband but is confident that a cushy future awaits her.

     Dinner at Eight did lend itself to three particular comedic moments. Just after Millicent learns the important English dinner guests will not be attending, daughter Paula tries to confess her decision to break the engagement for her actor lover and husband Oscar says he is not feeling well (he is dying) and wishes to rest as the others go to the theater. Millicent flies into a frenzy as she shouts about how no ones troubles are as bad as hers, given the aspic has been destroyed, one servant in jail the other in the hospital, and the guest list is now two people short of a traditional party. The other two laughs come from Harlow. Once at the party, the guests awkwardly speak about their like or dislike for Florida. Kitty says she cannot lay out in the sun because of sensitive skin and never exposes that skin then turns away from the camera displaying a totally bare back. Just prior to the film’s close, we get this exchange:

Kitty: I was reading a book the other day.
Carlotta: (Shocked, stopping in her steps) Reading a book??
Kitty: Yes. It’s all about civilization or something. A nutty kind of a book. Do you know that the guy says that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?
Carlotta: Oh, my dear. That’s something you need never worry about.

Carlotta’s suggestion is pretty blatant, and serves to end the movie on a positive note as all individuals funnel into the dining hall, laughing and in good spirits.

     Dinner at Eight, based on George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s play, is such a tragic collection of stories that portray the various impacts of the Great Depression. Particularly, this story highlights the fall of successful and wealthy individuals who have never known dire straits. Although it is not a pick-me-up, Dinner at Eight offers fantastic performances by all involved. Of particular note are both Barrymores: Lionel as a gaunt, dying man and John as an arrogant alcoholic. Burke also lends occasional comedic relief as the energetic party planner and is most endearing.

  • Dinner at Eight is set for 6 p.m. ET Nov. 9 on TCM.

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

Gasser 

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

     I have been avoiding the various incarnations of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” for a number of years based on the conclusion that the story is far too compelling and therefore horribly depressing. My aversion, to put it simply, is that I can find no way to not be crying and frustrated by the conclusion. Nevertheless, I opted to delve into the much proclaimed MGM take on the tale of star-crossed lovers and found that perhaps my emotional curse with this story is lifted; although, that is not a compliment to the picture.

     Unlike the most recent adaptation of the play directed and artfully reimagined by Baz Lurhman, the Romeo and Juliet starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard keeps much of the dialogue that the newer version found unnecessary. I do not count this as a virtue, however. Mercutio, who is well played by John Barrymore, spends many a minute rambling through fanciful descriptions of dreams and fantasy, the words from which fly by so quickly that one would mentally exhaust himself if he tried to understand what the hell that man was rambling about. I find it hard to believe that audiences in 1936, the majority of which were less educated than we are now especially with the likes of Shakespeare, were able to find enjoyment in this style of English that in some of the relays of dialogue is utterly impossible to understand even by me. Count me stupid, I suppose.

     What perhaps did appeal to audiences was the grand spectacle the picture was. MGM pulled out all the stops in putting this film together. A Verona church was constructed in Hollywood, three different replicas of Juliet’s balcony were used so as to avoid the use of a camera on crane, and exotic animals such as peacocks and monkeys lurk in the backdrop in some scenes. More than 2,000 extras were used on set. Also of interest is that the movie was filmed twice: once on set and again with actors in rehearsal against a screen. The latter technique is particularly obvious during the party scene when our lovers are dancing together but in front of a back projection screen where the remainder of the party guests dance in time.

     This was the last picture that MGM Producer and “wonder boy” Irving Thalberg produced before dying in 1936. His involvement and push to have this movie made were why audiences got the leading lady they did. Shearer was his wife, and he instantly marked Romeo and Juliet as a great vehicle for the then-queen of MGM. Shearer’s star power would lose clout at the studio after her husband’s death. As far as the gal’s performance, I found it agreeable but not stunning. She is quite different from the roles she had become known for in playing sexually liberated women before the Production Code cut back on such characters. Shearer is young-spirited and air headed at times as the dreamy-eyed Juliet. Her leading counterpart Howard does a better job, I think, but neither seemed to bring strong enough emotion to their parts to get me weeping or feeling sorry for their plight by the end. When Mercutio dies, we get nearly no emotion from Romeo before he dashes off to kill Tybalt (Basil Rathbone), but perhaps that was the way of men in those days.

     The MGM 1936 Romeo and Juliet is a high-rated film by critics and contemporary viewers, so I’m likely to be chastised when I say that I was not thrilled by it. Frankly, I was falling asleep trying to endure the dialogue, which I think at times obscured emotional acting from the players, that runs on for more than two hours. I have mentioned before my slight lack of appreciation for Shakespeare, which I am sure had some play here, but the actors gave me little to cling to otherwise. Barrymore is the only actor I think was perfectly cast. Howard does fine but he is not the most manly of men. The part was offered to Clark Gable, who turned it down by famously saying, “I don’t look Shakespeare. I don’t talk Shakespeare. I don’t like Shakespeare, and I won’t do Shakespeare.” I think it is best he was not hired for the part, and I am not sure who would have done better. Cagney? Kidding.

Sources: Ben Manckiewicz, TCM.com

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