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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.
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Saratoga

Saratoga (1937)

Gasser

     I had mentioned when reviewing Jean Harlow’s Platinum Blonde that it was odd to see the sexy, sassy gal playing a high-society dame, but in Saratoga that same sort of part fits a bit more comfortably on the star. She is like usual paired opposite Clark Gable in what would be her last picture before dying at age 26.

     Harlow had developed kidney failure, later attributed to scarlet fever in her youth, that slowly broke down the star’s health. Filming was 90% complete on Saratoga when she died much to the surprise of all around her. In order to produce a tribute and profit off the fans that wanted one last view of the blonde, MGM employed separate body and voice doubles to allow Harlow’s character, somewhat noticeably, to hide behind large hats or face away from the camera. Saratoga was top at the box office in 1937.

     The story follows Gable as Duke Bradley who is not just a horse-racing book keeper but a pal to Frank Clayton (Jonathan Hale) who owns a horse-breeding farm but is also in debt to the bookie. Frank hands over the deed to his farm as collateral just before dying. Duke naturally plans to give the deed to the daughter, Carol Clayton (Harlow) but when the snooty brat makes plans to pay him for it, he decides to take her for a ride. Carol plans to wed a Wall Street big shot Hartley Madison (Walter Pidgeon) whom Duke knows as a big gambler and the perfect mark. Duke continues to annoy Carol as the two travel to various horse races. Also along is Duke’s friend Fritzi, played by Una Merkel, who has married cosmetic magnate Jesse Kiffmeyer (Frank Morgan). She loves horses and tricks her hubby into buying one at auction despite his being allergic. Hartley has also been duped into buying Carol’s own horse.

     Duke has offered Carol a cut of whatever he takes her husband-to-be for in horse racing bets, but the girl is offended and the feud between them begins. Once in Florida, Duke is really set to put his plan in motion, but Carol works to send Hartley away so he is not tempted to gamble. In the process, a doctor diagnoses her with nerves related to …uh… eager anticipation of their wedding night. Duke also refuses to leave her hotel room when Harley returns, and so the intruder hides under a couch while Carol smokes his cigar and insists Hartley stay in Florida. Upon leaving, Duke gives the gal a smooch and we see a change in her disposition.

     From here it is clear Carol is working to help Duke make a mighty profit on her fiancée, whose resources are essentially unending. When the blonde tells Duke she loves him and that she is breaking it off with her beau, the man objects because he has yet to get him for a much larger prize. What he does not tell Carol, however, is that he wants to get enough money to leave the book-keeping business and fix up the girl’s farm. So the two are at odds again and Carol connives to have the horse Duke is sure will win a big race –Fritzie’s horse– lose by switching jockeys.

     Harlow and Gable for the last time get their on screen happy ending together. Their characters here are much more subdued than the harsh criminal or tough-guy/slut personas they embodied in the past, but it makes them more every-man. Despite playing a socialite donned in conservative dress and pearls, Harlow’s character still manages to pack a punch with her words and attitude so we get a nice mix of class and lively sass.

Source: TCM.com

The Secret Six

Gasser

The Secret Six (1931)

     Gobs of movies during what we consider the classic eras had titles that had little or nothing to do with the plot of the film. Many took their names from popular songs of the day and others went through numerous changes before a title that suited the studio was selected. With The Secret Six the name is nearly irrelevant. The title refers to a body of men who wear masks (and pretty lame ones) and collect information on bootleggers and other criminals, delivering their findings to the district attorney. That body of men is only twice referenced in the movie and the first does not occur until more than half way through the action.

     Also not appearing until probably a third into the plot are Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, who appeared together for the first time in this Wallace Beery vehicle. Beery was a big deal at that time, but in a few years time his name would get billed under the other two as their stars quickly climbed (see China Seas). Beery could be quite the heel and liked to flex his star power, and Harlow, whom MGM borrowed from Howard Hughes who had her on a contract, found particular distaste with the star.

     In The Secret Six, Beery is laborer “Slaugherhouse” who takes up with some bootlegger friends of his upon learning about the great living they earn. When he and his pal Johnny Franks, among others, start to muscle in on a rival bootlegging operation, a shoot out ensues and the rival boss, Colimo (John Miljan) finds his kid brother killed. Franks pins the rap on Slaughterhouse, but when Colimo’s gang goes after him, they only wound the brute. Getting his revenge, Slaughterhouse shoots Franks and takes over his restaurant. He has now become essentially the boss of the operation. Enter reporter Carl (Gable) who with another reporter Hank (John Mack Brown) are trying to get the scoop on the murder while also flirting with Anne (Harlow), a moll of what is now Slaughterhouse’s gang, who is also now arriving out of no where.

     Although Anne selects Hank as her beau, both reporters hang around the gang, trying to get scoops on all the goings on. Slaughterhouse, who now is going by Louis Scorpio, has also bribed them for giving him favorable light in the papers. The mobster has managed to elect a new mayor, which will keep the cops off his back to an extent. Carl and Hank are separately helping the police and the Secret Six by spilling information on the bootleggers. Hank has a theory that the same gun was used to kill Franks and Colimo, who has by now been knocked off. So he’s in search of it in the Scorpio home, which has the boss wise to his disloyalty. Anne tries to warn her man, but he is gunned down on the subway.

     The case goes to court and Anne and Carl testify against Scorpio, but because the jury is fixed, the man gets off. He is now obviously out to kill the two snitches and is nearly successful.

     The Secret Six was released before the Production Code was in full swing, so it managed to get by with some considerable violence. Some theaters refused to air it because of that concern. Unlike some other pre-code gems, however, in this flick the bad guy does not get away with his crimes. He is also horribly unlikable, so no one is really rooting for that approach.

     The movie was a great move for Gable and Harlow. MGM exec Irving Thalberg had scenes added to bolster Gable’s character and the actor was hired to a contract with the company thereafter. Harlow too would soon join the MGM ranks. Both of those actors are enjoyable to watch but Beery does a great job of being an awful person. He is both evil and persuasive so that he does not become a totally hateable man, but one we know not to cross.

  • The Secret Six is set for 7:30 a.m. ET Aug. 14 on TCM.

Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com

China Seas

Ring a Ding Ding

China Seas (1935)

     I love China Seas, and not just because of Jean Harlow‘s “nip slip” (see below). I am hesitant to call it the best Harlow-Clark Gable collaboration because Red Dust is also stellar, but this one really packs a punch. The chemistry between the lead players is the same hot-headed Harlow against equally stubborn Gable the two typically ignited on screen, but I think Harlow really plays that part best in China Seas while maintaining a vulnerable edge that easily wins over the viewer.

     The story is not just a romance set on a voyage between Hong Kong and Shanghai. It also offers pirates, betrayal, heroism and a conflicting love interest for Gable as ship’s captain Alan Gaskell. Alan is surprised to find before shoving off that China Doll (Harlow), a girl he picked up in Hong Kong –a performer of some sort– has booked herself passage on the non-luxury boat because she’s mad for the captain. Also on board is a friend to both China Doll and Alan, James MacCardle, played by Wallace Beery, but we are tipped off early on he has some shady connection to pirates hiding aboard the ship that seek a shipment of gold.

     Alan immediately discovers that also on board is an ex-lover, Sybil, played by Rosalind Russell, who immediately ignites a passion in the captain who is far more gruff than the man she used to know. China Doll notices this right off and voluntarily backs away from her man, although she does a poor job of severing the ties. Alan plans to marry the now-widowed Sybil as soon as they dock and leave his sea life behind, but Russell’s character quickly fades into the background once a typhoon and subsequent pirate takeover come to the forefront.

     China Doll seems to be missing during the storm during which all passengers have headed for the lounge area of the ship. She is partaking in a drinking/gambling game with MacCardle in his cabin when she finds half a 100 pound note in his wallet that is surefire evidence he is a pirate. MacCardle notices the missing money and forces China Doll to join up with him or essentially be killed. The dame runs to the captain after the storm calms down, but he, drunk, refuses to listen to a word because he thinks she is just there to win him back. That pisses the gal off and she steals the key to the armory, delivering it to MacCardle.

      In the midst of the pirate takeover, a crewmate (Lewis Stone) who chickened out during the typhoon and was arrested because of it, is shot, has his foot broken and still manages to save the day by crawling to the captains quarters to gather grenades. Despite a Chinese torture device, Alan never gives up the location of the gold and convinces the criminals and  MacCardle –who is translating with the pirates and pretending to be on Alan’s side– that there is no gold.

     Alan solves the mystery of how the pirates got the key to the armory and sends China Doll to trial, but not before making his decision about what broad he wants to marry.

      Now to touch on that accidental indecent exposure to which I alluded. There is a scene that I have noticed both times I watched this movie when Harlow’s gown slips from her soldier and she flashes a full breast at the camera. I am doing my best to not sound like a pervert here, but I found it pretty amazing that such a mishap could make into a final film print. For those wanting to look for this incident, it occurs in the scene when China Doll is fighting off a drunken MacCardle who wants his half 100-pound bill back. In stumbling around the room on a ship rocked by the storm, Harlow’s dress strap slips off her soldier, the what would now be deemed “nip slip” occurs and she, realizing what happened, throws her shoulder back to force the gown in place. I find it comical that this happened to Harlow, who always wore slinky dresses that seemed poised to slip from her shoulder at any moment. Call it fate.

The Beast of the City

Gasser

The Beast of the City (1932)

     Movies have since nearly their inception been known to glorify crime usually more often than they do law enforcement. This seemed particularly true during Prohibition when many speakeasy-frequenting audience members likely sympathised with the plight of the bootlegger. The Beast of the City is one rare example where that is not the case. The film –the direct result of a request by President Herbert Hoover of MGM head of production Louis B. Mayer to make a film that reverses on the typical glorified gangster plot– promotes the efforts of police officers to fight racketeering.

 
     Walter Huston plays Jim “Fighting Fitz” Fitzpatrick, a police captain known to be tough on crime to the point that he clashes with the chief of police. This results in him being transferred to a desk job in a small town. Meanwhile, Wallace Ford playing brother Ed Fitzpatrick, a vice officer, offers to look into the innerworkings of mobster Sam Belmonte’s (Jean Hersholt) set up. In the process he starts an affair with Belmonte’s secretary, Daisy (Jean Harlow), who distracts him from his work and even gets him extra income helping Belmonte find safe routes to get liquor to its destination. When Fitz joins a car chase after some bank robbers/murders and gets a plethora of press for the excursion, the media push for his appointment of Chief of Police in that big city from whence he was excluded.
 
     As Chief, Fitz creates an army to arrest every drunkard and shut down every gin joint with the aim of eventually taking down Belmonte. Ed, meanwhile, is annoyed his brother will not give him a promotion based on nepotism and agrees to facilitate in the theft of a truck of money by Belmonte’s men. Because he is being watched by two off-duty cops, the crime does not go off easily and one of those officers ends up shot dead. Being the tough chief he is, Fitz charges his brother with murder alongside the two hoods involved in the debacle, but Belmonte’s attorney gets all three off. Despite this blow to the law-and-order side of the story, the cops are able to close the film in what could either be seen as a victory or a draw.
 
     Harlow’s part in this film is rather small. She plays a gangster’s moll, which is pretty typical for her, and she is given no particular attention in the plot outside her small influences over Ed. The story is more about Fighting Fitz and his various endeavors. An important note: Fitz’s son is played by a young Mickey Rooney, who although it few scenes, really steals them. He was going by Mickey McGuire at that time. He was named Joe Yule, Jr. at birth but his mother offered to legally change his name to Mickey McGuire when he was going for a role based on comic strips about a character of the same name so that the producers of the films could circumvent paying the writer of the comic strip royalties.  SPOILER The Beast of the City ends in a lot of bloodshed. Continue reading

The Girl from Missouri

Dullsville

Girl From Missouri (1934)

     I was excited to come across a pairing of Jean Harlow and Franchot Tone in a romantic flick as I enjoy Harlow and find Tone quite charming, but their pairing in The Girl From Missouri produced poor results on the acting front.

     Both Harlow as Eadie and Tone as Tom gave amateurish performances in this story of a girl who wants nothing more than to marry with her virtue in tact. Eadie leaves her home in Missouri because the booze joint her mother and step-father run will eventually create a fate similar, I suspect, to that which befell Barbara Stanwyck‘s character in Baby Face. In New York with her pal Kitty (Patsy Kelly), the two work as chorus girls while Eadie plots how to land a millionaire husband. Performing at the party of one such wealthy gent, Eadie wrangles a suspiciously easy proposal from host Frank Cousins (Lewis Stone), who gives the girl ruby cufflinks to make into an engagement ring. Once she is out of the room, Cousins shoots himself over financial trouble, thus explaining his willingness to “marry” the dame. Eadie and Kitty rush into the room and are held there as police search for the missing rubies. Another millionaire, T.R. Page (Lionel Barrymore), who somehow knows the girls are innocent of the theft, sneaks the gems out of Eadie’s stocking and returns them to the girl later.

     The next day, Eadie is on the hunt for T.R.’s hand in marriage and follows him to Palm Beach after he gives her some dough on which to get by. There she runs into Tom, who happens to be T.R.’s son, but she does not know that at first, so she resist him. Despite everyone’s suspicions, Eadie is not a gold digger but merely someone who wants a proper chance in life for her children. When Tom locks her in his room one evening and tries to put the moves on her, she convinces him that she is on the level about being “clean”. They love each other but Tom has had sex on the brain more so than marriage. When he does come around to the idea, his father superficially agrees to the union but conspires with the district attorney and newspapermen to frame Eadie not only for stealing the rubies but for having an affair with a stranger.

     So the concept is Eadie is a girl who everyone thinks is a hussy but who really just wants to get married without compromising her virginity. Her forward approach with men and flashy looks suggest just what everyone thinks, but her words are the only thing insisting otherwise. She is supposed to be in love with Tom, but neither actor convinced me. Tom is first introduced as on the phone with a sweetheart whom he quickly hangs up on when he spots Eadie, so naturally we think he is a playboy. Indeed, all he really wants from the blonde is a good time until he finds out she is “pure”, which is apparently all it takes to be marriage material, never mind the social boundaries or her continually deteriorating reputation.

     There is a cute scene when Tom throws a drunk Eadie in the shower and gets in himself, hat suit and all, and tells her they are going to get married immediately. The moment seems romantic and sexy, but it is cut short before anything profound can be said. This might have been the result of Production Code restrictions. The Girl from Missouri was the subject of many re-shoots and re-editing because of the decency code that was now in full enforcement. The title too underwent many changes before landing on the bland Girl from Missouri. At first it was “Eadie is a Lady” based on a popular song at the time, the lyrics of which suggested the opposite of the title. The Hayes Office also felt the option of “100% Pure” suggested otherwise, and also nixed “Born to be Kissed” as too suggestive.

     Despite the code restrictions that perhaps dampened the quality of the story, the actors have no excuse for their performances. Harlow is a poor crier and both she and Tone had moments of lousy acting that is not present in most of their work. It just goes to show you cannot pair two good-looking people together and expect magic.

Source: Robert Osborne

Platinum Blonde

Gasser

Platinum Blonde (1931)

     Jean Harlow essentially perfected a character for herself, one that perhaps immoral by the standards of her day, was always endearing. She was the blonde, usually moderate- to low-income gal who would get her man by any means. She had sass and bared her sexuality shamelessly. In Platinum Blonde, however –a film that was literally named for her– Harlow takes on an entirely different role: the socialite.

     Newspaperman Stew Smith, played by Robert Williams, is assigned to interview a wealthy family –the Schuylers– about a breach of promise suit filed by a chorus girl against the son. He immediately makes eyes at Harlow’s daughter character, Ann, and enrages the family by refusing to take a bribe and running the story even after Ann flirtatious sidled up to the working man. Later, after interviewing the chorus girl, Stew returns to the Schuyler mansion with a stack of love letters the complainant was holding as further blackmail. He refuses a check from Ann and she softens to him.

     It is not long before Stew and Ann marry against her family’s wishes. This upsets fellow reporter Gallagher (Loretta Young) who has been pining for Stew. Thinking that he and his wife will take an apartment, Stew learns otherwise and is moved into a wing of the Schuyler mansion. He continues his job out of pride but is often ribbed by his coworkers who call him a bird in a “gilded cage” and “Ann Schuyler’s husband”.  The union is destined for failure if only because Stew’s disinterest in money has him as an outcast in his new setting.

     Platinum Blonde was originally titled “Gallagher”, but when Jean Harlow’s fame grew enormously during filming, thanks to films such as The Public Enemy, the producers saw fit to profit from her stardom. When watching, the film, however, one has to wonder if the script was also altered to feature Harlow more prominently. One hardly notices Young’s characters, so the “Gallagher” title makes little sense. Her role becomes more prominent in the end but she has maybe half the screen time Harlow does.

     In this sophisticated role, Harlow makes an effort to change her voice to one a bit softer and stick her nose up a bit more. Her clothes, though their usual silky style are more conservative and look less like they might slip off her shoulder at any moment. Williams gets the prize for performance, however. His witty dialogue and delivery of it put awkward dry laughs into the atmosphere of a snooty mansion, making us all feel at ease. Tragically, Williams died at age 34 of a ruptured appendix four days after Platinum Blonde premiered.

Source: Robert Osborne

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