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Sins of the Children


Sins of the Children (1930)

     The advent of sound sent Hollywood producers running to Broadway to find some actors who could actually speak coherently enough for film audiences. During this raid on the stage, MGM found Louis Mann and created a vehicle to movie stardom for him through Sins of the Children, at the time marketed as The Richest Man in the World. Mann, however, would die the next year and never make another film. The project was not without its discoveries, however, as it was among the first pictures in which fellow stage actor Robert Montgomery would appear.

      Mann plays the ultimate father as Adolph, a barber who opens the picture preparing to invest in a start up building and loan operation. Just before heading out the door, however, he learns one of his sons is ill and in need of rest in a dry and high altitude climate. The man thus re-appropriates his investment. His friend Joseph Higgenson (Robert McWade) follows through with the business venture, however, and becomes a powerful man.

      Jump ahead at least a decade and Adolph is still muddling through at his barbershop. The one son died at war, another, Ludwig (Francis X. Bushman Jr.), has just graduated from medical school and would rather spend time with his girlfriend and Americanize his name. Son Johnnie (Elliott Nugent) has a job as a debt collector but is persuaded by Higgenson’s son Nick (Montgomery) to gamble with it. Adolph must then make up the $200 missing dollars to prevent his son from going to jail. Nick is dating daughter Alma (Leila Hyams) even though his his father does not approve of the girl beneath his social rank.

      Next the father mortgages his barbershop to donate $2,000 toward setting up a medical office for Ludwig only to find he has just eloped with that unpleasant girlfriend. He cannot make the payments on the loan, however, and his shop is foreclosed despite the hiring of a manicurist –with whom Johnnie falls in love — to attract customers.

      Despite the disappointments his children have wrought and the loss of his livelihood, the story offers us a happy ending. Johnnie, who had skipped town, returns home with a patent for an automatic shaving cream dispenser that has been put partially in Adolph’s name. Johnnie and the manicurist opt to marry, Nick –after hearing Adolf declare he is a richer man because of his family’s love than the wealthy Joseph Higgenson– marries Alma, and all members of the family celebrate the holidays together.

      Sins of the Children was nothing if not finely acted. One can see why Mann was considered a hot property for Hollywood, and Montgomery shows himself as a seasoned actor in only his second year in California. Mann plays his character as a father teetering between ignorance and over-generosity. The story goes to extremes to prove the value of familial love but does so in a logical manner. All children, despite their flaws, remain as endearing to the audience as they do to the father who continues to care for them.


Night at the Opera

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Night at the Opera (1935)

     I must not be most people because “most people” find A Night at the Opera to be the best Marx Bros. movie. Although I concede this MGM-produced picture is more accessible than the men’s Paramount-produced movies, I like the the zanier nonsense plots than I do this normal comedy embellished with Marx humor.

     The brothers start their scheme in Italy where Groucho‘s mark Mrs. Claypool, played by Marx regular Margaret Dumont, is being convinced to donate to the New York Opera Company so it can hire a famous Italian singer, Rudolpho Lassparri (Walter King). Chico is pals with a less-noticed tenor in the Italian opera and tries to finagle a deal for that singer as he confuses Groucho. Harpo is again a pal of Chico’s character and has been employed as a dresser for Lassparri until he is discovered wearing several layers of the theater’s costumes.
     The lesser-known tenor, Ricardo Barone (Allan Jones), is in love with opera singer Rosa, played by Kitty Carlisle, who has also attracted the attention of Lassparri. The more prestigious tenor arranges for the woman to come to New York with him and be his leading lady. The next step of the plot involves the trip to New York via steamship.  Although Lassparri, Rosa, Mrs. Claypool and Groucho all have tickets for passage, Chico, Harpo and Ricardo stow away by commandeering Groucho’s trunk. Groucho’s state room also happens to be the size of a closet, yet the trunk, the men and a whole slew of servants and strangers crowd into the room until they literally burst out.
     While aboard the boat, the men entertain some gypsy-types with their musical talents while trying to avoid being caught by ship personnel. To depart the vessel without getting caught, the three stowaways pose as foreign, bearded aviators and then are forced to make speeches –or in Harpo’s case, refuse to– before a crowd of Americans there to welcome them. A detective continues to hunt the men who arrived in the U.S. under “false pretences”, which eventually leads them to the opera house where the Marx Bros. are creating chaos and annoying the snooty audience. What finally turns the performance around for the men and the audience is Ricardo taking over for Lassparri as the lead.
     No matter how much a screenwriter/studio might try to make me care about the other characters in a Marx Bros. movie, I could not be less interested. What I think makes A Night at the Opera better liked among the average audience is that it balances and mixes the adventures of the Marx men with their surrounding cast members. I continue to prefer, however, the Horse Feathers and Monkey Business stories that have the comedians’ plots having little to do with the story driving all other characters. That is in large part because the scenes with the Marxes were borrowed from their stage acts and so did not rely on the plot. I find these exchanges more comically effective, however, than A Night at the Opera‘s endeavor to intertwine Groucho, Chico and Harpo into the story.
  • A Night at the Opera is set for 12:30 p.m. ET Dec. 31 on TCM.

The Pride of the Yankees

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Pride of the Yankees (1943)

     I think one of Gary Cooper’s greatest gifts is that although he seemed well suited for playing powerful, strong, intelligent men, he could just as easily play a naive, humble gent who is completely oblivious he is the almighty Gary Cooper. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is one such example as is The Pride of the Yankees.

     Like most classic-era biopics, The Pride of the Yankees takes some liberties in the telling of the life of baseball great Lou Gehrig. Although it maintains that the young man attended Columbia University to study engineering, how he got in is another story. In order to establish his mother as a loving, yet persistent force in shaping her son’s career, Gehrig is depicted as getting into school on his mother’s cooking there. Instead he attended on a football scholarship. Mother Gehrig (Elsa Janssen) in the movie pushes her boy to be an engineer like his uncle and is adamantly against a sports profession, so when Gehrig signs with the New York Yankees, the young athlete and his father conceal it from the mother, who is now ailing in the hospital and in need of money to support her stay. She learns the truth when the papers proclaim Gehrig’s call up to the major leagues where he (accurately) goes on to play 13 years without missing a game.
     In the movie, Gehrig meets his future wife Eleanor, played by Teresa Wright, when he goes up to bat for the Yankees the first time and slides across a row of bats on the ground. Sitting in the front row, this daughter of the hot dog king calls him “tanglefoot” and starts a barrage of laughter in the stands. Gehrig manages to see her off the field and the two hit it off, eventually marrying. When Gehrig becomes weak and is eventually handed an unfavorable diagnosis, the man forbids all in the know from telling his wife of his fate, but Eleanor knows it anyway. The film closes on a high note with Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day, held in reality in 1939, two years before his death.
     Pride of the Yankees was released two years after the legend died and is an amiable tribute. Cooper does a tremendous job playing the simple, rather unremarkable personality Gehrig is said to have had. He is a very honest, unselfish character, which makes him easy to love and easy to miss for any moviegoer. The only drawback I saw to the movie is that Cooper, 42 at the time of the movie’s release (two years older than Gehrig would have been that year), is unable to hide his age in playing college-age and early ball-playing Gehrig. The crows feet that form with his smile belie his age, making a good portion of the movie unrealistic in appearance. Wright, on the other hand, was appropriate looking for the younger years of the couple, but the only aging she does is via slight modifications to her hair and clothing styles. The same can be said of Babe Ruth, who plays himself. Although his performance is fine, he looks beyond ball-playing age. If not for these complaints, the film would be near perfect.
Source: LouGehrig.com

A Day at the Races

A Day at the Races (1937)


     Why is it that Marx Brothers movies are crafted in a way that they could nearly be classified as musicals? Although the men themselves offer no notable vocal talents, their movies often had supporting actors who might go off on a song or two. In A Day at the Races, we are subjected to a number of musical productions separate from the talents of Chico and Harpo, who typically found themselves showing off their respective instrumental skill.

     Following one such song by our side male lead of Allan Jones as Gil, Chico takes to the piano for an uplifting ditty and to keep the law at bay. Harpo follows up by pounding the piano producing a not-so-bad tune but demolishing the instrument in the process. Thereafter, he play the “harp” by using the piano’s stringed insides. Harpo would also later play a wind instrument and spur a lively musical number featuring a large group of black stablehands. The fabulous song will remind astute ears of “I’ve Got Rhythm” and “Blow Gabriel Blow” and features Ivie Anderson and members of Duke Ellington’s orchestra.

     But musical numbers in Marx Brothers movies always seem a distraction from the actual plot and merely a device to fill up some play time. The story here has nothing to do with anyone’s musical talents, although Gil is mentioned as having a slight singing career, but he is more interested in horse racing. That is where the whole “Races” part of the title comes in. Gil buys a race horse Hi Hat in the hopes of winning some races and providing the financial support his girlfriend needs to keep her sanitarium running. The girlfriend, Judy (Maureen O’Sullivan), must produce some dough to keep the story’s villain Morgan (Douglas Dumbrille) from taking over the institution and transforming it into a casino. Morgan also happens to be the former owner of Hi Hat whose voice drives the horse wild, a detail that will come in handy later.

     Because Gil’s money-raising efforts are failing, Judy hopes that a wealthy woman who thinks she is ill will help fund the sanitarium she calls home. This Mrs. Upjohn, played by Margaret Dumont, is particularly bewitched with Groucho‘s Dr. Hackenbush, whom Judy arranges to come work at her institution. Both women are unaware, however, that Hackenbush is a horse doctor. All sorts of absurdity ensue with Groucho as a fake doctor, Chico as the sanitarium bus driver, and Harpo as a jockey, all working to help Judy save her institution.

     Ever the favorites of MGM Producer Irving Thalberg, the brothers were sent out at his behest to theaters around the country to try out new material they could use in this picture. These were some of the arbitrary games the men play in the picture that have little to do with the plot but are their trademark. Thalberg, however, died while A Day at the Race was in the works, upsetting the Marx boys and shuffling the production credits.

     One of the gags utilized in A Day at the Races would reappear a few years later in Go West. This circulating money routine involves Chico paying a $5 bill to the sheriff to pay for the horse and when the recipient pockets the bill, Harpo retrieves it and passes behind the man’s back to Chico, who pays it again. This works until the Sheriff stuffs the money into his vest pocket rather than his pants and Harpo is left digging in the trousers and leaving with only the sheriff’s sock.

     Possibly the best scam in A Day at the Races is perpetrated by Chico’s Tony, who also works selling “ice cream”, “tutsie frutsie” to be precise. Operating on a new-to-town Dr. Hackenbush, Tony persuades him not to put his money on one horse but instead buy a $1 tip from him for on whom to bet. The doctor agrees, but the tip is in code. Now he must buy from Tony’s ice cream cart a code book. That document is also not clear on the horse’s name and requires information about whether it is a filly, which requires the purchase of another set of documents. By the time Hackenbush discovers the horse’s name he is too late to place a bet and Tony has used his money to back the winning horse, which happens to be the one Hackenbush liked from the start.

     Although I still maintain the pointless endeavors of the Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers as my favorite of their excapades, A Day at the Races had its moments. These largely involved getting the boys alone to go off on one routine or another and are as enjoyable as ever.

  • A Day at the Races is set for 7:30 a.m. ET Oct. 16 and 10:30 a.m. Dec. 31 on TCM.

Source: Robert Osborne

The Girl from Missouri


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

Hold Your Man

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Hold Your Man (1933)

      Turner Classic Movies has devoted Tuesdays in March to Jean Harlow, and I have been diligently recording them to further explore whom I think of as THE platinum blonde. Harlow was the epitome of sex appeal in the 1930s. Her suggestive roles always seemed emphasized by the slinky gowns she wore, shoulders hunched forward, that hung as though they would slip off her shoulder at any moment. Harlow and Clark Gable were repeatedly paired together in the ’30s, and one can understand why. His brutal sexuality and her unflinching sass made them perfect contenders. Hold Your Man was released a year after the well-known Red Dust had Harlow splashing around in a water barrel bathing while Gable chastised her. It was after Hold Your Man in which Gable stumbles upon a bubble bath-submerged Harlow, however, that the blonde officially had enough box office clout to star in films without a famous sidekick like Gable.

     Gable’s Eddie first meets Harlow’s Ruby in that bath when, while running from the cops, he ducks into her apartment to hide out. Comically, when the police demand to search the place, Eddie disguises himself in the now-vacant bath by covering his face in suds and playing husband to Ruby. Eddie is a con man —not an unfamiliar role for Gable— and Ruby is a gal who gets by on the favors of her boyfriends, the pictures of several she keeps on her bureau. Eddie immediately puts the moves on Ruby, but she is not swayed. They next meet when Ruby with her boyfriend is spotted by the leading man at a club (Turns out Ruby has been dining there for weeks knowing it is a regular hang out of Eddie’s.). Ruby kindly ditches the boyfriend and later heads to Eddie’s where after insisting she wants no tour of his bedroom, ultimately spends the night.

     Ruby, Eddie and pal Slim (Garry Owen) try to pull a scam on a drunken man who will be enticed to get handsy with Ruby in time for Eddie to charge in, claiming to be her brother, and demand restitution. The trouble is, Eddie jumps the gun because he cannot stand the notion of another man messing with his girl, socks the guy, who falls cold out the door. Eddie’s now-apparent feelings for Ruby lead the duo to head out for a marriage license, but when they return to the apartment building, they learn the man Eddie hit is dead. The cops nab Ruby, but Eddie gets away. The remainder of the film takes place in the women’s reformatory where Ruby finds herself in a family way.

     Gable’s characters were typically the gruff man’s man sort, but he always got his woman (or rejected her). What I found delightfully different about Hold Your Man is the amount of soft emotion he brought to the role. Gable’s characters were not typically the marrying sort, but it is believable in Eddie. Toward the end of the picture we get a fantastically sensitive plea from Gable as he implores a pastor to secretly marry he and Ruby within the prison. Harlow, too, brings a great amount of sensitivity to her role, but that was less a rarity with her. Her characters, despite being typically tough women who could care for themselves, always had emotional moments. Hold Your Man is quite a gem among both actors’ work.

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