Friday, March 23, 2007

Films set in 1927

For Goatdog's 1927 Blog-A-Thon, I'm departing from my established formula. I'll resume discussing movies of 1937 after today's brief return to 1927.

Since I've already blogged about the movies of 1927 throughout the month of February (see all my posts here), I decided to list some films from other years that were set in 1927.

Events of 1927

May 20-21, Charles Lindbergh becomes the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1957, Jimmy Stewart portrayed Lucky Lindy in The Spirit of St. Louis, which focused on this historic event.

August 23, Anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are executed in Massachusetts after being in convicted of murder and robbery in a controversial and highly publicized case. Their case was dramatized in the 1971 Italian film Sacco and Vanzetti.

October 6, The Jazz Singer opens and becomes a sensation. The motion picture industry has to transition to this new standard of synchronized sound with unforeseen consequences. This was memorably demonstrated in 1952's Singin' In The Rain.

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was a flourishing of African American art and culture centered in Harlem, New York. The movement produced an expansive list of inspiring and influential artists, one of whom is the innovative dancer Josephine Baker whose life story was made into the movie The Josephine Baker Story in 1991. Harlem in the 20s was also the setting for Francis Ford Coppola's 1984 classic The Cotton Club.

Prohibition, Speakeasies and Gangsters

Prohibition led to speakeasies, the covert establishments that served liquor. Organized crime prospered by running these clubs and by supplying the bootlegged booze. Al Capone became the most notorious of these gangsters. This provided a rich source of inspiration for movies (The Untouchables, Road To Perdition, Scarface, Some Like it Hot, Miller's Crossing, Idlewild, etc.), but most of these take place after Capone's Valentine's Day massacre in 1929, or during the Depression in the early 30s. Two notable examples of this genre that span the time before the Depression are Sergio Leone's epic Once Upon A Time In America (1984), and Cagny/Bogart crime thriller The Roaring Twenties (1939).

Sunday, March 18, 2007


In Dead End, notorious gangster Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart) returns to his childhood home in the slums of East Side Manhattan to see his mother (Marjorie Main) and his old sweetheart (Claire Trevor, who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance).

The film follows a variety of characters who try to cope with life in a slum squeezed between the East River and the upscale high-rises of the wealthy. Sweet and hardworking Drina tries to keep her little brother Tommy from falling in with a gang of delinquents. Dave, an unemployed architect, tries to make an honest living painting signs while trying to impress Kay, the mistress of a wealthy man torn between love and security.


1937 was a hopeful time for New York City. Following a period of political corruption and economic depression, their former Governor, Franklin Roosevelt, was elected President, and popular reformist mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, was elected mayor. Democrat Roosevelt's New Deal programs greatly benefitted New York City, and Republican LaGuardia was a strong supporter of it.

The movie was based on play by Sindey Kingsley which explores how adult crime is linked to juvenile delinquency, and how both are exacerbated by poverty and social inequality. In this era of growing socialist idealism, the play was eagerly received on Broadway and ran for almost two years (Oct 1935 - June 1937)


The film's politics may have seemed progressive at the time, but after 70 years of labor unions, minimum wage, social security, and welfare programs, they don't seem so radical.

The movie featured a gang of juvenile delinquents that proved so popular that the "Dead End Kids" spun off a series of movies of their own. Although this was probably Bogart's most acclaimed role at the time (after the previous year's Petrified Forest became his breakout hit), many of his subsequent movies easily overshadow this one.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


The Casbah is a walled-in mazelike section of the city of Algiers where notorious French jewel thief Pepe Le Moko hides from the Authorities. The police know they can never catch Pepe while he's in the Casbah; there are too many hiding places, and he has too many friends. Pepe knows he can never leave the Casbah or he would immediately be captured.

A beautiful diamond covered French tourist represents everything Pepe has been isolated from: love, home, and country, and he becomes obsessed with her. Inspector Slimane, Pepe's nemesis and admirer, sees an opportunity; would the thief risk everything for this jewel?


The Casbah of Pepe Le Moko is exotic and romantic - much different from the horrific and violent Casbah that we would see in The Battle of Algiers 30 years later.

Although there had been tensions between the indigenous Muslims and the European settlers throughout the 100+ years of French rule in Algeria, the conflict wouldn't come to a head until the start of the Algerian War of Independence two decades later.


This film is stylish and dense with atmosphere. It practically invents the noir genre, and there are many great classics (Casablanca for example) that influenced by it.

This movie would be remade as Algiers one year later in an English language version starring Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. Algiers would be a faithful translation, mimicking exact shots from the original, and even editing in some of the original's footage. A decade later, a musical version would be made starring Peter Lorre. But perhaps its most familiar influence today is Pepe Le Pew, the famous cartoon skunk that was based on the character of Pepe Le Moko.

Monday, March 12, 2007


Paul Muni plays the title role in The Life of Emile Zola, the biographical film of the 19th century French writer, social activist, and general dust-kicker.

Unevenly paced and choppily edited, the first act efficiently checks through the list of necessary milestones of Zola's early career. The second act abandons Zola altogether and focuses on a simplified and incomplete version of The Dreyfus Affair.

It's in its third act that the film justifies its Best Picture Oscar. The movie becomes a first rate courtroom drama with surprise witnesses, withheld evidence, testy lawyers objecting, and irritable judges overruling. Zola's on trial for libel after publishing J'accuse, the controversial essay critical of the French government. In the climatic speech by Zola to the jury, Muni pours his considerable reserves of passion into his fist pumping and jowl shaking monologue.


The story of anti-Semitism in France in the late 19th century, and its probable role in sending an innocent patriot into exile, was timely considering the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, particularly Germany. Or at least it would have been had the film mentioned it.

Bafflingly, the most relevant and compelling part of the Dreyfus affair was completely left out of the movie! It wasn't until after I saw the movie and researched its accuracy that I learned that Zola and Dreyfus were Jewish, and that this was a significant part of the case.


Although I criticize this movie for simplifying the facts of the Dreyfus case, it's this generalization that makes this movie eerily relevant today. In the movie's version of the case, the army falsely convicts Dreyfus, and after they discover their error, they cover it up to save face. Zola's meddling threatens to divide the country just when they need unity the most, so he is branded a traitor. In this sense, Zola is like modern muckraker Michael Moore in that his attempt to hold the government accountable for its actions is considered a treasonous act by some, and a patriotic act by others.

Thursday, March 8, 2007


Tom Canty is a dirt poor beggar boy who lives with his abusive father. He was born on the same day and has an uncanny resemblance to Prince Edward, son of King Henry VIII and next in line of succession to the throne.

After escaping a downpour, Tom finds shelter on the palace grounds where Prince Edward saves him from the palace guard and befriends him. While playing, the prince and the pauper exchange clothes and marvel at their similarities. Edward is mistaken for Tom by the palace guard and sent from the palace.

Neither boy can convince anyone that they are not who they appear to be, but Prince Edward is befriended and protected by Miles Hendon who is initially skeptical about Edward's royal claims, but humors him anyway. Once convinced, he tries to help Edward return to the palace before Tom is mistakenly crowned King.


King George VI's coronation was May 12, 1937. This movie's release date was scheduled to coincide with this (after its May 5 premier, it opened widely May 8).

Errol Flynn's popularity after his breakout performance in Captain Blood two years earlier led to him being top billed despite not being in the lead role. He makes his first appearance in the film halfway through.

Although Twain's novel was a social satire about class inequities, it's doubtful that this swashbuckling film version had such a political agenda. But the fact that these social issues could fit so unobtrusively in a family movie is an indication of how pervasive these ideas were. The Depression had caused an increased involvement in organized labor and a general national shift toward socialism as demonstrated by President Roosevelt's social programs of the New Deal. These social issues were more overtly promoted in such movies as Winterset in 1936.


As a classic work of literature, the story is timeless and has lent itself to several remakes, including versions starring Mickey Mouse, Barbie, and the up-coming Sprouse Brothers modern version.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007


Stage Door is about The Footlights Club, a boarding house for aspiring actresses. When a confident rich amateur (Katharine Hepburn) moves in, her snobbery immediately provokes the derision of the other tenants, particularly the wisecracking and insecure dancer (Ginger Rogers) who is assigned as her roommate.

The other residents run the gamut from the old grand dame who's underappreciated in her advanced age, to the teenager who's never even been in a theater except as a spectator. Andrea Leeds (in her Oscar winning performance) plays last year's sensation desperate to get another role before people forget who she is. Gail Patrick plays a scheming social climber trying to date her way to fame. The cynical and sarcastic Eve Arden, and the jaded Lucille Ball round out the impressive ensemble.


Stories of star struck young women becoming disillusioned by the reality of show business was becoming popular theme in the films of the time as demonstrated in another 1937 film, A Star Is Born.

Audiences were already familiar with Katherine Hepburn as she had already won an Oscar in Morning Glory four years earlier. Earlier in her career, she had starred in a Broadway play called "The Lake" which had famously flopped. Hepburn playfully references this in Stage Door when, as a bad actress set up to fail, she woodenly recites a line from The Lake: "The calla lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion..." This line would become one of her more memorable catchphrases.

Audiences were also familiar with Ginger Rogers. Although usually associated with Fred Astaire, she had a career of her own, and was known to typically play strong and sassy characters.


The movie was the big break for Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, and Ann Miller, and it was fascinating to see early performances from these women who would become household names years later

The feminism holds up well 70 years later. Despite all the mean-spirited wisecracking, these women are there for each other when it counts. They're independent, tough, and smart.

Sunday, March 4, 2007


In Shall We Dance, Fred Astaire plays a ballet dancer who wants to be a tap dancer. He falls in love with a picture of a broadway performer played by Ginger Rogers and decides to meet her. He follows her from Paris to New York on an ocean liner. His publicist starts a rumor that the two are secretly married which causes a sensation as they arrive in New York. After a series of unlikely but not unexpected events, the two naturally end up together in the end.


Fred and Ginger musical comedies were nothing new in 1937. This was a follow up to a string of hits that included Top Hat in 1935 and Swing Time in 1936. These movies never pretended to be anything more than escapist entertainment where Depression era audiences could forget their troubles for a couple of hours.

Shall We Dance was an attempt to class up the Astaire/Rogers musical. They replaced the popular Irving Berlin songs with the more classical George and Ira Gershwin compositions, and brought a ballet influence to the dance. But it still seemed stale. Maybe they had they had exhausted the formula by this film, or perhaps the recovering economy left less of a market for the escapist entertainment.


Like any other Astaire/Rogers musical, the stories are hackneyed situation comedies that today's audiences have seen enough of on television. So the best way to watch them now is to fast forward to the song-and-dance numbers.

This movie has a few highlights in this regard: In "Slap That Bass", Fred dances on a stylized set version of an ocean liner's engine room to the rhythms of the machines; In "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off", Fred and Ginger dance on roller skates in a Central Park set; and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" is great classic Gershwin song.

Unfortunately, the movie also has more than its share of misses, particularly the final "Shall We Dance" number where Fred hardly dances with Ginger at all, but initially with a disturbingly flexible Harriet Hoctor, then with a chorus line of women wearing creepy Ginger Rogers masks.

Friday, March 2, 2007


In Waikiki Wedding, The Imperial Pineapple Company hires Bing Crosby, a layabout former Navy man, to come up with marketing ideas. His latest idea is to have a contest on the mainland and crown the winner "The Pineapple Girl" and award her with an all expense paid vacation to Hawaii. In exchange, she would publish her experiences in the newspaper.

The plan backfires when the Pineapple Girl finds she doesn't like Hawaii and threatens to publish this fact. It's up to Bing to show her a good time to ensure she publishes a positive review. A moonlight boat ride while crooning the Oscar winning song, Sweet Leilani, just might do the trick.


In 1937, Hawaii was a strategic American military base, a popular tourist destination for wealthy Americans, and the pineapple capitol of the world.

Hawaii was not a state, but a territory. The most significant differences being that the agriculture industry was not required to pay the same tariffs as the mainland plantations, nor were they obligated to uphold the same labor laws. The sugarcane industry prospered under this situation and wielded considerable political clout. Second to sugarcane, was pineapple. Dole pineapple, which produced 75% of the world's pineapple, was clearly the model for the "Imperial Pineapple Co." in this movie.

There was an attempt in 1937 by Congress to grant statehood to Hawaii, but it failed over issues of race as Hawaii would be the only state with a non-white majority. If this attitude was prevalent at the time, it's not apparent in the movie; the Hawaiian culture is portrayed respectfully. Plenty of dialogue and song lyrics are in the native language without subtitles, and the Hawaiian roles are played by native actors (or at least non-white actors). I don't know if Bing had a hand in ensuring that the Hawaiians were depicted with dignity, but it wouldn't surprise me. He had been insistent on the casting and prominent billing of Louis Armstrong in the previous year's Pennies From Heaven, the first time a white and black actor shared top billing on a major film.


Martha Raye and Anthony Quinn are familiar faces to today's viewer, although they were relatively unknown at the time. Martha Raye's performance is particularly over-the-top, but it was uncharted territory for a female comic at the time and a possible influence on Lucille Ball. It's hard to laugh at her humorous song about binge drinking when you know how hard her life would become due to her alcohol problems later in life.

Thursday, March 1, 2007


Time Capsule Year: 1937

Academy Award Best Picture Winner:
The Life of Emile Zola

National Film Register:
The Awful Truth
Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs
The Prisoner of Zenda

Time Magazine Person of the Year:

Chiang Kai-shek and Soong May-ling

Nobel Peace Prize:
Robert Cecil

Timeline of News Events:
January 20 - Franklin D. Roosevelt starts his second term after being re-elected in a landslide.
April 26 - Guernica, in the autonomous Basque region of Spain but sympathetic to the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, is bombed by the German Luftwaffe allied with Franco's Nationalists.
May 6 - German passenger zeppelin, The Hindenburg, bursts into flame while landing in New Jersey, killing 36 passengers.
May 27 - The Golden Gate Bridge opens.
June 7 - Blonde bombshell Jean Harlow dies from kidney disease.
June 22 - Joe Louis "The Brown Bomber" defeats James J. Braddock "The Cinderella Man" to become the heavyweight boxing champion.
July 2 - Amelia Earhart disappears over the Pacific during her attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world.
July 7 - Japan invades China launching the Second Sino-Japanese War and starting WWII in Asia.
September 21 - JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit published.
December 21 - The premier of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, considered the first full length animated feature by people who willfully ignore Lotte Reiniger's stunning 1926 film The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

In Queue:
Titles I've added to my GreenCine and NetFlix queues to see this month.
Waikiki Wedding
Shall We Dance
Stage Door
The Grand Illusion
The Life of Emile Zola
The Awful Truth
You Only Live Once
Big Fella
Drole de Drame
In Old Chicago
Dead End
The Prince And The Pauper
Pepe Le Moko
A Day At The Races

Movies I would have added to my queue, but are not available at GreenCine or Netflix.
The Prisoner of Zenda
The Spanish Earth
On The Avenue

Already Seen:
Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs
Lost Horizon
A Star Is Born