“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.

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“SAN FRANCISCO” (1936) Review

“SAN FRANCISCO” (1936) Review

I just recently watched the 1936 disaster film, ”SAN FRANCISCO”, which starred Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy and Jack Holt. Released 30 years after the actual event, the movie is basically about a Barbary Coast saloonkeeper (Gable) and a Nob Hill impresario (Holt) who became rivals for the affections of a beautiful singer (MacDonald), both personally and professionally in 1906 San Francisco. The story culminated in the deadly April 18, 1906 earthquake that devastated the city. 

In the movie, a gambling hall tycoon named Blackie Norton (Gable) hires an impoverished but classically-trained singer from Colorado named Mary Blake (MacDonald). Mary also attracts the attention of a wealthy Nob Hill patron named Jack Burley (Holt), who believes that she is destined for a better career as an opera singer. Mary becomes a star attraction at Blackie’s saloon, and a romance develops between them. Complications arise when she is also courted by Burley. He also offers her an opportunity to sing in the opera. Meanwhile, Blackie’s childhood friend, Roman Catholic Father Tim Mullen (Tracy), keeps trying to reform him, while the other nightclub owners attempt to convince Norton to run for the City and County of San Francisco Board of Supervisors in order to protect their crooked interests. Despite Father Tim’s best efforts, Blackie remains a jaunty Barbary Coast atheist until the famous 1906 earthquake devastates the city. He “finds God” upon discovering that had Mary survived.

Basically, ”SAN FRANCISCO” is an excellent movie filled with vitality, good performances and great music. Director Woody Van Dyke did an excellent job of capturing the color and energy of San Francisco during the Gilded Age. He was ably supported by the movie’s Assistant Director (Joseph M. Newman) and montage expert (Slavko Vorkapich). Composer Bronislaw Kaper and lyricist Gus Kahn wrote the now famous title song, performed by MacDonald. One of the best moments in the film occurred when MacDonald’s character announces her intention of performing the song in the movie’s Chicken’s Ball, producing applause and cries of joy from the audience. As for the famous earthquake itself . . . I am amazed that after seventy years or so, I still find it impressive. To this day, the earthquake montage is considered one of the standards that all disaster films are compared with. In fact, Assistant Director Newman won a special Academy Awards for his work.

Robert Hopkins (who received an Oscar nomination) wrote the story for ”SAN FRANCISCO” and the famous Anita Loos wrote the screenplay. Hopkins and Loos created a good, solid story. But I have to be honest that I found nothing remarkable about it. It seemed like your basic Gable programmer from the 1930s that easily could have been set during any time period in American history . . . well, except for the actual earthquake. I do have one major problem with the movie’s plot – namely its religious subplot in which Father Mullen spends most of his time trying to redeem Blackie. Quite frankly, it struck me as heavy-handed and a little out of place. Perhaps Hopkins and Loos had intended for the scene in which Blackie found Mary offering compassion to some of the earthquake’s survivors to be a tender and emotional moment. It could have been . . . if they had left out the heavy religious theme.

The only good thing about the religious aspect of the story was Spencer Tracy’s presence in the film. One cannot deny that he gave the best performance in the movie. Well, he and veteran actress, Jessie Ralph, who portrayed Jack Burley’s Irish-born mother. But Tracy’s presence also meant that one had to deal with the movie’s religious subplot. And as much as I liked Tracy in the film, I think it could have done without him. Jeanette MacDonald gave a solid performance as the saloon hall singer-turned opera diva, Mary Blake. However . . . I found MacDonald’s singing more remarkable than her character. Pardon me for saying this but Mary is one boring woman. Rather typical of the female characters that Gable’s characters had romanced in his movies during the mid and late 1930s. I find it amazing that two dynamic men like Blackie and Burley were so dazzled by her. Both Clark Gable and Jack Holt gave solid performances as the two rivals wooing for Mary’s hand. Ironically, despite the differences in their characters’ backgrounds, they were chillingly alike. Both were charming, gregarious and extremely underhanded men. Quite frankly, I found it amazing that Mary could prefer one over the other.

Despite some flaws – the most obvious being the religious subplot that turned out to be as subtle as a rampaging elephant – ”SAN FRANCISCO” is a first-class, rousing movie filled with music, drama, laughs and one of the best special effect sequences in movie history. I heartily recommend it.