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The Beast of the City


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

Around the World in 80 Days


Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Around the World in 80 Days is one of the lesser acclaimed Best Picture winners and understandably so. The 3+ hour movie offers an epic adventure marked by little excitement and characters that are difficult to love or identify with. David Niven‘s Phileas Fogg, who takes up a wager that he cannot circumvent the earth in 80 days, is uptight and cold. Despite this he manages to attract Shirley MacLaine‘s Indian Princess Aouda, who Fogg and companions rescue from a ceremonial burning alive. The only endearing character is Passepartout, played by an actor known only as Cantinflas. The Spanish gentleman’s gentleman, womanizer and gymnast gives the film is comical edge and heart.

Returning to MacLaine, I am reminded of how many older films used white, American actors in roles of a different ethnicity. I at first did not recognize MacLaine being so young and with tanned skin. She really does not look Indian, but it must have been more important/convenient to have an American actress play the role. This sort of casting I found most off putting in the 1944 Dragon Seed, which features an all-star American cast for a film set in China. Katharine Hepburn, Agnes Moorehead, Hurd Hatfield, and Walter Huston are made up to look Japanese and their presence perhaps points to a severe lack of valued, Asian actors in Hollywood at the time. Although a few Chinese actors are included in 1937’s The Good Earth, Paul Muni was cast as the lead character. That film, along with The Story of Louis Pasteur, have me avoiding all Muni roles now. I have also seen Abner Biberman cast — and painted — multiple times as characters of a different ethnic background. In his first role in 1939’s Gunga Din, Biberman plays and Indian character; in (again) Dragon Seed as a Japanese soldier; in 1945’s Back to Bataan as a Japanese Captain. I guess the guy just had that look.  The examples from my memory, however, all occurred in 1945 and earlier, so why could Hollywood still not locate a naturally exotic-looking character for Around the World in 80 Days? Did MacLaine really have the sort of star power to be a necessary contribution to the film?

Around the World in 80 Days is marked by a fabulous cast of famous side characters. A pudgy Peter Lorre shows up for a scene, Marlene Deitrich rattles off a few lines and Frank Sinatra gets photographed from behind for numerous shots before showing his face. The movie could really be enjoyed more as a game to spot the famous cameo than as a work of cinematic art. But at least I can check it off my list.

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