OTHER GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933: GIRL MISSING (1933)

September 20, 2016

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In the first scene of Girl Missing (1933), Guy Kibbee tries to seduce Mary Brian with the line: “I don’t feel fatherly, I feel…hotcha!” And so begins this randy, money-grubbing, mystery-solving pre-code starring Brian and motormouth Glenda Farrell. They are two out-of-work chorus girls indulging in some gold-digging to leach cash from old lechers. But in the wildly convoluted plot that races through 68 minutes, they get roped into the murder of a mafia bookie and the disappearance of a society dame (or so she seems). It’s a trial run for Farrell’s tamer post-code Torchy Blane (nine films between 1937 – 1939) movies, in which she played a sassy investigative newsgal sans sexual innuendo. In Girl Missing Farrell machine-guns her dialogue to mow down con-men, con-women, and anyone else who has the misfortune to walk past her in the frame. It airs tomorrow on TCM at 6:15AM, and is also available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

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Girl Missing was the first film that Robert Florey directed for Warner Brothers after a tendentious run at Universal (he was removed from Frankenstein after extensive pre-production work) and a short one at independent studio K.B.S. Florey’s career continues to fascinate – he was a French born artist who worked as an assistant director to Louis Feuillade, Chaplin and von Sternberg who made a name for himself with the experimental short The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra (1928, watch here), directed with Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland. A mournful satire of an artist getting chewed up by the movie business, Florey would go on to have a long career in the Bs and then on television. He acclimated to WB’s quick and snappy style, finishing shooting on Girl Missing in thirteen days at a cost of $107,000, per the AFI Catalog. It is no surprise then, that his work pleased studio boss Darryl Zanuck, who sent Florey a memo after viewing an early cut: “a very fine job…in record time. I am certain that the picture will cut up into a fast moving melodrama with a lot of swell comedy and a lot of unusual angles.”

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Zanuck is not far off the mark, although there are no unusual angles – the expressionism that Florey was identified with from his work on Murders in the Rue Morgue is not on display, as there couldn’t have been time for any elaborate set-ups – plus the scenario didn’t lend itself to elaborate stylization. This is a film about speed in front of and behind the camera, and Florey does his job obligingly. He received his next assignment, Ex Lady, within days of finishing Girl Missing. Zanuck called him at 3AM to be at the set in a few hours. Florey responded that he “wanted to know if it was a comedy or drama; who was the star of the film; and perhaps I could get the script…or was it too much to ask?” He finished shooting that in 18 days – and I wrote about that one here.

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Girl Missing concerns the disappearance of Daisy Bradford (Peggy Shannon), who was due to marry the super-rich Henry Gibson (Ben Lyon). Kay Curtis (Glenda Farrell) and June Dale (Mary Brian), are out-of-work chorines not above digging for gold who stumble into a plot to bilk Gibson out his cash.  They recognize Daisy from their hoofer days – she is not the society dame she presented herself as, and a whole conspiracy begins to unravel at their feet. Girl Missing loses its tempo when Farrell is off-screen, which occurs far too much in a film barely over an hour. There is a lot of futzing about with the rich Henry Gibson (a deadly dull Ben Lyon), which had me checking my watch until Farrell stalked back on-screen with her sassy Sherlock Holmes routine.

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Farrell had yet to be paired with her acid-tongued blonde counterpart Joan Blondell, but Mary Brian is game as her gamine accomplice. Their early setup works with Brian as the bait and Farrell as the staller, the one who keeps the old horndogs from getting too handsy. Farrell is the bane of Guy Kibbee’s existence (my main complaint with the film – not enough Kibbee), putting everyone off with pungent dialogue (credited to Ben Markson). There are such gems like, “Working for a living’s old fashioned, but on the other hand so is starving to death.” Or her reaction to Daisy’s nuptials: “When I think of it I could bite a battleship in two.” Joan Blondell described Farrell’s working methods for Hollywood magazine in 1936:

“When she goes into a scene she never follows the script to the sacrifice of her naturalness. She acts just as she would if the same situation arose in her every-day life. In other words, she suits the part to her personality instead of trying to suit her personality to the script. She handles dialogue the same way and never tries to twist her tongue around expressions foreign to her own way of speaking. Before we go into a scene, we go over our lines together and revise them, without changing their meaning, until they fit our mouths.”

Everything is a little snappier when it comes out in Farrell’s nasally purr. We should be thankful she was around for the pre-code era, which gave her the freedom to make these B movies faster, funnier, and more like herself.

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TRUE ROMANCE: HIGH TENSION (1936)

February 3, 2015

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I don’t know if Allan Dwan ever read the Futurist Manifesto, but High Tension is an exemplar of what Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was celebrating in his incendiary 1909 statement in praise of the industrial age: “We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.” And boy does Dwan like to go fast in High Tension (1936), which packs a screwball comedy and a deep sea adventure into its 63 minutes. Of his films from this period, Dwan said, “I’d eliminate stuff that was extraneous and speed up stuff that was written slowly. A writer stretches a story out, and you’ve got to fix it up. Make it move.” High Tension’s narrative moves through telephone wires and underground cables, bringing together the exploits of the swashbuckling cable layer Steve Reardon (Brian Donlevy) and the dime store writer Edith MacNeil (Glenda Farrell) who turns his feats into fiction. The electricity that makes their jobs possible seems to jitter their bodies as they continually break up and smack back into each other across the country. It’s an action-packed ode to wired communication, and is now available for viewing in a very nice looking MOD DVD from Fox Cinema Archives.

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High Tension was the third of four movies that Allan Dwan directed for Fox in 1936, but it was a fortuitous assignment. Dwan  studied electrical engineering at Notre Dame, and was named president of their “Electrical Society”. His interest the speed of communication afforded by expanding technology is established in the opening montage, which uses rapid fire dissolves to connect a web of phone calls: from irate cablegram customers, to a bank of operators, to the cablegram offices in which overwhelmed officials panic over a line break under the Pacific. This necessitates more communication, from the offices, to an isolated frigate, and using miniatures, Dwan follows a wire all the way down to a diving bell at the bottom of the ocean, in which Steve Reardon is reading about his fictionalized exploits in True Action Stories. This week’s issue is written by his sometime girlfriend Edith MacNeil, or “Mac”, who exaggerates true stories into bestsellers. “She’s got everything”, Steve says, including “hair, makes you wanna dry your face.” His clunky love sonnets are interrupted by a buzz from his boss, desperate for him to fix the sliced cable. He agrees, on the condition he gets two weeks off and a thousand dollars so he can marry Mac.

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A whirligig of a man, he bursts into the cable offices riding on  a messenger bike, craving speed even when traveling from desk to desk. His live wire can only get doused by booze, and he is four hours late to his long-awaited date with Mac when he passes out on his desk after a celebratory quaff or ten. Thus begins a pitched battle between Steve and Mac, an equally matched couple who seem to love each other more with each humiliation (“The further away he gets from me, the better I like it”, says Mac). To get back at his lateness and brutishness, (“I’ll fix that big stuffed moose!’) Mac slathers her face in cream and nuzzles him for a kiss, smearing the goo all over his stunned kisser. This is their first major crack up, but the film is wired for them to explode every ten minutes, and it seems like their relationship is one sustained donnybrook. When not brawling with Mac, Steve is almost drunk rolled by Ward Bond at a local dive, uses a grand piano as a weapon against a prizefighter, and dives to save a pal lodged in coral. Even when Steve ditches Mac to mentor an electrical engineer friend of his (Norman Foster) in Hawaii, their relationship carnage trails behind them. As Dwan biographer Frederic Lombardi points out, the film is suffused with the rapidity of both communication and travel. People can express themselves instantaneously, from whatever location, but also physically appear sooner than later. When Mac shows up in Hawaii, she explains that she took the China Clipper, “which took her just 14 hours”.

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The initial story treatment was written by J. Robert Bren and Norman Houston, and titled “Here Comes Trouble”. The trouble is breathlessly constant, and the actors work such bubbling energy it’s as if they’re trying to compete with the speed of electricity. In its own low-budget way, High Tension is something of a capitalist Man With a Movie Camera, except here the camera is held by Hollywood technicians, and the man-machines they are celebrating are cowboy free-enterprise types. As soon as Steve is out of her sight, Mac signs up to write the life stories of boxer Terry Madden (Joseph Sawyer), under the alluring umbrella title, “Ladies Love Champions”. Steve comes home with a ring, hoping to pop the question – instead he flips out with jealousy and gets popped in the mouth by Madden. This sequence is Looney Tunes in its cartoon exaggerations, from the jousting with a grand piano to the papier mache way in which solid wooden doors splinter when Steve goes crashing through them. It’s a very violent battle that only ends when Steve’s favorite statue/liquor container topples onto Madden’s head. Steve is an all-action no-thinking avatar of Marinetti’s future: “Let us leave good sense behind like a hideous husk and let us hurl ourselves, like fruit spiced with pride, into the immense mouth and breast of the world! Let us feed the unknown, not from despair, but simply to enrich the unfathomable reservoirs of the Absurd!”

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Steve would endorse all of the above, if wasn’t busy living it. High Tension is not as absurdly macho as the Futurists, and allows a place for women in its world of techno wonders. The film ends with a detente between Steve and Mac, allowing their love to grow in intimacy, though they can only express it with barely suppressed violence. The last shot has Mac push Steve into a chair and perch herself on top of him. She informs him she will be joining him on one of his sea adventures to get more material for her stories. Incredulous, Donlevy cocks his head forward twice like a rooster, and flaps his hand as if hoping to wave away reality. Mac mockingly purrs, “Yes, darling.” She leans in, grasps her hands around his neck, and squeezes. They both smile.HighTension00031HighTension00032

AGAINST TYPE: HI, NELLIE (1934)

December 30, 2014

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Paul Muni snarled to prominence as the amoral gangster kingpin Scarface (1932), and followed it up with an expose of the prison system, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1933). He had already received an Oscar nomination for his debut performance in The Valiant (1929), so by 1934 he was a star, and a serious-minded one. Born to a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian empire, he came up through the Yiddish theater, made it to Broadway, and eventually earned unprecedented freedom in choosing the parts he wanted to play in Hollywood. So when histories of Muni’s career are written, few mention his little newspaper comedy from 1934, Hi, Nellie. A standard Warner Brothers quickie, it packs in screwball, romance, mystery and gangster movies into one 75 minute package. Muni clearly revels in trying out comedy, channeling his wiry energy into the clipped, slangy dialogue of a Hecht/MacArthur knockoff. And the rest of the cast is up to his challenge, with acidic performances from Glenda Farrell and Ned Sparks. Hi, Nellie is now available on DVD as part of the Warner Archive’s Forbidden Hollywood Volume 8 set of pre-codes (also including Blonde Crazy, Strangers May Kiss, and Dark Hazard).

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“Either a comedy, something light and frivolous, or the story of a Slovak coal miner.” This was reportedly Muni’s response to Jack Warner about what he would like to make after the multi-generational drama The World Changes (1933). Muni was fascinated by the coal miner’s fight for unionization and better work conditions. While acting in a touring company of Counsellor At Law, Muni stopped off in a Pennsylvania mining town to interview the local workers. All of this research would turn into Black Fury (1935). But first, he did something “light and frivolous”.

 Hi, Nellie was based on a story by Roy Chanslor, and turned into a script by Abem Finkel and Sidney Sutherland. Finkel was Muni’s brother-in-law, and the scion of a legendary Yiddish theater family. Abem’s father Moishe was a producer in Hungary as well as the States. Great Yiddish star Jacob Adler described Moishe in his memoir: “A tragic figure in our history, Finkel. One of the first pioneers, an excellent artist, a good director, for many years a power in our theater world, until in 1904 he put an end to his career and life with a bullet in his brain.” After Moishe’s second wife,  Emma Thomashefsky, left him, he shot her, her lover, and then himself. Emma was partially paralyzed but lived until 1929. Muni’s employment of Abem was not just for nostalgia’s sake. Abem had a long career as a scenarist at WB, with an Oscar nomination for Sergeant York (1941), and credits on Jezebel (1938), Black Legion (1937) and many more.

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With Abem along, Muni carried the Yiddish theater with him, and must have seen some analogues to Yiddish comedy in Chanslor story. Muni plays Samuel Bradshaw (nicknamed “Brad”), the tough-talking managing editor of the New York Times Star. The head of the governor’s investigating committee, Frank J. Canfield, has gone missing, along with $60 Million of a prominent bank’s reserves. All the tabloids connect the two stories, that Canfield absconded with the cash, but Brad refuses to publicly indict him on scant evidence. The paper’s owner J.L. Graham (Burton Churchill) is enraged, and demotes Brad down to the paper’s romance column, where he has to take on the pseudonym Nellie Nelson. The current”Heartthrobs” columnist, Brad’s ex-beau Gerry Krale (Glenda Farrell), is thrilled to get back on the city beat.Brad has to endure rounds of “Hi Nellie!” each trip through the office, sinking him into an alcohol-fueled depression – until a break in the Canfield case gets his journalistic juices flowing again. The basic plot was remade several times by Warner Brothers, as Love is On the Air (1937), You Can’t Escape Forever (1942), and The House Across the Street (1949).

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Hi, Nellie was Muni’s third straight collaboration with Mervyn LeRoy (after I Was a Fugitive on a Chain Gang and The World Changes), one of WB’s most bankable directors. LeRoy topped Variety’s list of top box office directors of 1933, during which he directed Gold Diggers of 1933 and four more profitable movies. While never a distinctive artist, LeRoy was a reliable craftsman, and ably orchestrates the chaos of the Times Star’s newsroom. He establishes the geography of the office in a high-angle crane shot that scans the anthill industriousness of the constantly moving reporters/editors/newsboys. The majority of the film then uses waist-up medium shots to focus on gesture and dialogue. Muni, with a streak of gray in his hair to indicate the stresses of the job, seems to have studied the speed chatter of Lee Tracy in preparing for this role, all of his wiry strength transferred from his muscles to his words. Brad is an arrogant taskmaster who also happens to be good at his job, so when his power is taken from him, his whole self-image collapses. He ends up in a dive bar apologizing to his whiskey. But with Gerry’s admonitions ringing in his head to stop being a coward (she endured the Heartthrobs gig for much longer, and didn’t crumble), the plot shifts again into investigative mode, and Brad sets his sights on a local gangster.

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The film breezes by because of the energy of the performances. Brad and Gerry have a complicated, flirtations relationship that involves a past fling and professional jealousy. Glenda Farrell had experience playing a tough-talking reporter gal from her time in the Torchy Blane series, and her self-confidence emanates off the screen. LeRoy noticed this too, and grants her one of the few tracking shots in the film, pulling back through the office as she is harassed for a date by a mousy reporter (she, as ever, declines). The other unsung hero of the film is Ned Sparks, who has a Droopy Dog face and a voice like a muted trumpet. His deadpan nasal delivery anchors the film as it revs through the too-pat coincidences of the mystery plot. His slow-motion lope and sourpuss sarcasm brings everything back to earth.

Even though it’s rather unknown today, Hi, Nellie was well-received at the time. Photoplay lauded its “trip hammer action”, while Motion Picture Daily wrote, “It moves rapidly. It is flavored with the sauce of front page life and salted with humor.” The impressively named Frederic F. Van de Water at The New Movie Magazine ranked it as “outstanding”, and praised LeRoy for having “taken the trouble to learn how a newspaper office looks and sounds.” I’m throwing my lot in with the esteemed Mr. Van de Water. Hi, Nellie is a brisk entertainment, and one which shows off the commitment and range of Paul Muni, who I never expected could have been so funny.