“SADIE McKEE” (1934) Review

“SADIE McKEE” (1934) Review

Back in the 1930s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was king of the Hollywood industry, thanks to the business and artistic acumen of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg. One major aspect of MGM that made it the most successful studio eighty years ago was its star system. The studio used to boast that it had “more stars than there are in heaven”. One of its top stars was Hollywood icon, Joan Crawford.

Crawford first gained the notice of the MGM brass back in the mid-to-late 1920s. By the early 1930s, she had become a major star, whose metier was the “shopgirl-turned-Cinderella” story. This certainly seemed to be the case for her 1934 movie, “SADIE McKEE”. Based upon Viña Delmar’s 1933 short story, “Pretty Sadie McKee”, this movie told the story of a young part-time serving maid from upstate New York, who moves to New York City with her n’er do well boyfriend, Tommy Wallace, to start a new life as a married couple. When Tommy abandons Sadie to become part of a nightclub act with a beautiful singer named Opal, Sadie is forced to take a job as a chorus girl at a nightclub. There, she meets a wealthy businessman named Jack Brennan, who falls hard for her. Although she marries Jack, Sadie realizes that she still loves Tommy and that her new husband is a serious alcoholic.

When I first saw “SADIE McKEE”, I feared it would become another “EVELYN PRENTICE”, an old and rather unsatisfying MGM melodrama that had been originally released during the same year. And I viewed “SADIE McKEE” with a jaundiced eye. I am happy to say that my wariness proved to be groundless . . . for about two-thirds of the film. I have to commend both director Clarence Brown and screenwriter John Meehan for setting up Sadie’s story – her initial friendship with childhood companion Michael Alderson, attorney for her future husband; their falling out over Sadie’s romance with Tommy; and her engagement to and abandonment of the latter. If I must be honest, Meehan’s screenplay – at least two-thirds of it – proved not only to be detailed, but also well paced. Probably the best aspect of “SADIE McKEE” was its dark portrayal of alcoholism in the form of Sadie’s husband, Jack Brennan. In a scene that I never came across in a movie made before 1950, the film revealed how excessive alcoholism could lead an affable man like Brennan commit a shocking act of violence against the leading lady.

I managed to enjoy and appreciate “SADIE McKEE” so much that I was surprised when the movie took a disappointing turn during its last fifteen to twenty. Two things occurred that I believe brought about the movie’s downfall. Brennan finally became sober – a bit too early for my tastes – and Sadie discovered that her former fiancé, Tommy, was dying from tuberculosis. I honestly wish Brown and Meehan had either allowed Sadie’s story with Brennan and Michael to last longer. In fact, I wish she had never re-entered Tommy’s life in the first place. Their reunion at a hospital reeked with over-the-top sentimentality that bored me senseless. I believe in forgiveness as much as the next person – which is probably barely at all. But I thought Sadie’s forgiveness of Tommy happened a little too quick for my taste. I also had a problem with the movie’s last scene, which followed rather quickly on the heels of Tommy’s death scene. I read other reviews of “SADIE McKEE” that claimed it ended with a romance between Sadie and Michael. Really? I certainly did not get that impression. I felt more of a renewed friendship between them.

The performances in “SADIE McKEE” more than made up for the movie’s last act. Several bloggers have complained that leading lady Joan Crawford had failed to convey Sadie’s innocence in the film’s early scenes. I cannot agree with this assessment. I thought Crawford did a fine job in portraying the more innocent Sadie. More importantly, she expertly conveyed Sadie’s developing character as the latter faced more troubles. Franchot Tone gave an earnest performance as Sadie’s once and future friend, attorney Michael Alerson. On paper, his emotions seemed to be all over the map, but Tone skillfully kept his performance under control and did not allow his character’s emotions to get the best of him. I have never been much of a Gene Raymond fan. In fact, the only movie I had previously seen him in was the 1933 musical, “FLYING DOWN TO RIO”. Needless to say, I was not impressed. However, I was impressed by his portrayal of the charming, but shiftless Tommy in “SADIE McKEE”. Raymond made it easy for me to understand Sadie’s attraction to him.

Esther Ralston gave a funny, yet sympathetic performance as Sadie’s dependable friend, Dolly Merrick. Jean Dixon gave a skillful performance as the charming, yet shallow songstress Opal, who lures Tommy to her act and later dumps him. Fans of the television series, “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” would be surprised to see Leo G. Carroll portray the butler in the Brennan household. I thought he gave a solid performance. But the movie’s best performance came from Edward Arnold, who was outstanding as Sadie’s alcoholic husband, Jack Brennan. Arnold once claimed that Brennan was his favorite role. It struck me as a difficult role for any actor to perform. But Arnold more than held his own in a skillful performance that revealed the best and the worst of this complex character. Personally, I feel that Arnold should have received an Academy Award nomination for his performance.

Despite the disappointing finale, I still managed to enjoy “SADIE McKEE”. I would not regard it as one of the best films to star Joan Crawford. But aside from its maudlin finale, I found it fascinating. Director Clarence Brown, screenwriter John Meehan and a talented cast led by Crawford did a solid job in bringing the adaptation of Viña Delmar’s short story to the screen.

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“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” (1935) Review

 

“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” (1935) Review

For years, I could never understand Hollywood’s penchant for making so many films about the British Empire during the first half of the 20th century. The film industry had released films about imperial outposts under the control of other countries – like France, Spain and even the United States. But why did they film so many about British Imperialism? One of those films is the 1935 feature,“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”.

“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” is based upon the 1930 memoirs of a former British Army officer named Francis Yeats-Brown. But if you are expecting the movie to be a clear adaptation of Yeats-Brown’s book, you are in for a big disappointment. I suspect Paramount Pictures and producer Louis D. Lighton simply used the book’s title and setting – Imperial India – to create their own movie. The movie’s screenwriters, who included Waldemar Young and John L. Balderston, wrote a story about the experiences of three British Army officers serving with the 41st Bengal Lancers on the Northwest Frontier of India. The Scots-Canadian Alan McGregor welcomes two replacements to the 41st Bengal Lancers, the well-born Lieutenant Forsythe and Lieutenant Donald Stone (Richard Cromwell), who happens to be the son of the regimental commander, Colonel Tom Stone. McGregor is regarded as some kind of North American savage, who needs to reign in his aggression. Forsythe, who comes from an upper-class family, takes pleasure in mocking McGregor’s Scots-Canadian ancestry. And Stone grows to resent his father, who is determined to treat him coldly in order not to show any partiality.

The three officers, who find themselves sharing the same quarters, slowly develop a grudging friendship. However, when word reaches the regiment from intelligence officer Lieutenant Barrett that a local chieftain named Mohammed Khan might be preparing an uprising against the ruling British, Colonel Stone and his senior officers respond with a display of both friendship and power to the chieftain. Unfortunately, Khan kidnaps Lieutenant Stone, using his mysterious “associate” Tania Volkanskaya (portrayed by a rather unexceptional Kathleen Burke) as bait. While Khan tries to extract vital information about a British ammunition caravan from Lieutenant Stone, the latter’s father refuses to make any attempt to rescue him. Outrage, McGregor and Forsythe go after their younger colleague without orders.

As I had stated earlier, I never could understand Hollywood’s penchant for Imperial British adventures for many years. Until now. I read in a few articles that “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” was the first of its kind in this genre. Well . . . not really. The previous year – 1934 – saw the release of John Ford’s World War I adventure, “THE LOST PATROL”. And the silent era produced such films as 1929’s “THE FOUR FEATHERS”. But it was the box office and critical success of “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” that kicked off a major influx of British Empire movies that clogged the theaters up to the end of the 1930s.

How do I feel about “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”? Well . . . I certainly do not view it as a bad movie. I thought it was pretty decent. There were aspects of it that I found unoriginal – namely the “bromance” between the three major characters and the conflict involving a rebellious chieftain. How can I put this? I have encountered both scenarios before in other British Empire movies. The three buddies? Hmmm . . . the friendship between McGregor, Forsythe and Stone strongly reminded of a similar friendship between the three protagonists in 1939’s “GUNGA DIN”. One could accuse the 1939 film of plagiarizing the 1935 film, since it was released four years later. But the friendship featured in “GUNGA DIN” was based upon Rudyard Kipling’s collection of short stories called “Soldiers Three”. Who is to say that the movie’s screenwriters used Kipling’s stories as inspiration for the “bromance” in “THE LIVES OF THE BENGAL LANCER”?

Speaking of the movie’s trio, why did Paramount cast three American-born actors in the leading roles? Was there really a serious shortage of British actors? As I recall, Ray Milland was under contract with Paramount around that time. The writers made excuses for Gary Cooper and Richard Cromwell’s characters by portraying the former as a Canadian and the latter as an Anglo-American raised in the U.S. Franchot Tone is another matter. He portrayed the upper-class Englishman, Lieutenant Forsythe. Mind you, I have no problems with the actors’ performances. But I had a difficult time watching a movie set in British India . . . and starring three American actors.

I realize “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” was the first movie to really utilize the whole “local chieftain rebels against British Imperial authorities” into its plot. This was also used in subsequent movies like “GUNGA DIN”, “THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”, and “WEE WILLIE WINKIE”. The problem is that I have seen these movies before I saw the 1935 film. And if I must be brutally honest, the screenwriters and director Henry Hathaway’s use of this trope rather dry and bloodless. Hell, even the torture that Richard Cromwell’s character underwent was handled off screen.

After viewing “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”, it occurred to me that the movie’s character studies impressed me a lot more than the “action-filled” subplot. The interactions between the characters – especially between McGregor, Forsythe and Stone – struck me as a lot more interesting and complex. First of all, the screenwriters and Hathaway did an excellent job in portraying the problems (or lack of them) that the three major characters had with the film’s other supporting characters – especially their fellow British officers. I was especially impressed by the film’s portrayal of the officers’ low regard for McGregor’s so-called North American aggression, and with the younger Stone’s cool relationship with his estranged father. I was also impressed by how the three disparate leading characters developed into a strong friendship by the movie’s last act. But the screenwriters and Hathaway are not the only ones who deserve the praise. The movie’s strong characterization would have never worked without the first-rate performances from the cast – especially Gary Cooper as McGregor, Franchot Tone as Forstythe and Richard Cromwell as the younger Stone. The three actors were ably supported by solid performances from Guy Standing, C. Aubrey Smith and Douglass Dumbrille.

Do not get me wrong. I do not dislike “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”. I think it is a pretty solid film. But I find it difficult to believe or accept that it received a total of seven Academy Award nominations. Despite the movie’s strong characterizations and excellent performances, I did not find it particularly exceptional. A part of me believes simply believes it would have been better off as a character study (with a shorter running time) than an epic British Imperial adventure.

“BOMBSHELL” (1933) Review

“BOMBSHELL” (1933) Review

In one of Hollywood’s ironic twists, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released “BOMBSHELL”, a 1933 comedy about the trials and tribulations of a movie starlet. To this day, many believe that the movie was supposed to be a satire on the life of silent film goddess, Clara Bow. But looking at the movie today, it could have easily been a take on the life of the film’s leading lady, Jean Harlow.

Based upon an unproduced play by Caroline Francke and Mack Crane, and directed by Victor Fleming; “BOMBSHELL” begins with movie star Lola Burns being fed up with the machinations of her studio’s publicity chief, E.J. “Space” Hanlon, who continuously feeds the press with endless fake scandals about her. Lola also has to put up with her drunken father who tries to manager her career, and an obnoxious brother; who both sponge from her. She also has to deal with a private secretary that takes advantage of her at every opportunity. Unaware of Space’s feelings for her, Lola is also torn between a fortune hunting European nobleman and gigolo and a brash Hollywood director. Lola decides to put her life in order by adopting a baby. But when Space and her family sabotages her efforts, Lola turns her back on Hollywood and flees to a desert resort.

What can I say? Not only is “BOMBSHELL” one of my favorite movies from the old Hollywood studio system, but one of my favorite comedies of all time. Screenwriters John Lee Mahin, Jules Furthman and Norman Krasna created a hilarious tale about the chaotic and surreal life of a Hollywood starlet. “BOMBSHELL” featured a rather funny interview between Lola and a writer from a Hollywood gossip rag. While Lola and her father provide the journalist with pretentious tidbits about their lives, the camera gives a view of the journalist’s more realistic take on their answers. Another hilarious scene featured a fist fight between Lola’s sponging Maquis boyfriend, Marquis Di Pisa Di Pisa and the volatile director, Jim Brogan. During the movie’s last half hour, Lola meets and becomes romantically involved with an East Coast blue blood named Gifford Middleton and his family. This relationship allowed Gifford to quote one of the most cringe-worthy and hilarious lines in film history:

“Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I’d like to run barefoot through your hair!”

However, Space’s response to Gifford’s uh . . . compliment, had me on the floor laughing:

“He looks like an athlete. I wouldn’t want him puttin’ his foot through my scalp.”

But not only is “BOMBSHELL” funny, it also gave moviegoers a glimpse (and I mean that literally) into life as an actress during Hollywood’s studio era. The movie’s first twenty minutes revealed Lola being prepared for a day of shooting and the type of people that worked at a studio. The only unrealistic moment during this sequence was a scene featuring the studio’s boss, who was portrayed as a benign leader concerned for both his studio and the well-being of performers like Lola Burns under contract. But the egoism, back-stabbing and borderline insanity is all there.

I have always been a fan of Jean Harlow as an actress for as long as I can remember. But I believe that Lola Burns was one of the best roles in her career. Her comedic talent seemed to be at its height in this movie. She conveyed all of the best . . . and worst of Lola Burns. Harlow made it obvious that Lola is a victim of the studio system and her bloodsucking family. But she also skillfully conveyed Lola’s egotism, temper and penchant for illusions. Someone once commented that Lola’s character and situation never changed for the better or worst by the film’s last reel. I cannot quite agree with this assessment. I got the feeling that Harlow’s Lola spent most of the movie indulging in illusions of a possible “normal life”. These illusions led her to pursue relationships with men like the Marquis Di Pisa Di Pisa and Gifford Middleton and make an attempt to adopt a baby. While proclaiming that she had enough of Hollywood, Lola expressed signs of jealousy when Space informed her that another contract player might get a role that she had previously coveted. It is not that surprising that when faced with the end of her illusions, Lola returned to Hollywood.

Lee Tracy was equally funny as studio publicist E.J. “Space” Hanlon. His Space was sardonic, manipulative and quick with his tongue. Best of all, Tracy had a great screen chemistry with Harlow. It is a pity that they never worked with each other – before or after. Both had appeared in “DINNER AT EIGHT”, but did not share any scenes together. Pity. The movie also benefited from other supporting performers such as Frank Morgan, who radiated both bluster and charm as Lola’s deadbeat father; Pat O’Brien, who was very sexy as Lola’s former beau, director Jim Grogan; Franchot Tone, as Lola’s new beau, who gave one of the most memorable lines in the movie; and a sharp-tongued Una Merkel as Lola’s bloodsucking secretary, Mac.  Louise Beavers, who portrayed Lola’s maid Loretta, had two delicious moments in the movie, despite being saddled with a racially cliched role. I especially love the scene featuring her clash with Merkel’s Mac, when the latter threatened to have her fired. It gave her the opportunity to speak another one of the movie’s more memorable lines. The only cast member I had a problem with was Ted Healey. His Junior Burns seemed like a mindless thug that lacked the charm of Lola and Mr. Burns. I found it hard to believe that he came from the same family.

If you want a peek into life at a Hollywood studio during the early 1930s, then “BOMBSHELL” is your movie. If you want a hilarious movie that starred Jean Harlow in one of her best roles, then “BOMBSHELL” is definitely your movie. Not only did the benefitted from the talents of Harlow and co-star Lee Tracy; but also from the directorial skills of Victor Fleming and a first-rate script written by John Lee Mahin, Jules Furthman and Norman Krasna.