Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: Night Court (1932)

I promise I'll start posting more content than just movie reviews soon, but in the meantime, here's a review of a great pre-code I watched a few days ago:

When MGM released Night Court in 1932, its story of crooked judges and a corrupt system of justice in New York City was pulled from the newspaper headlines of the previous year. When, in the movie, cabbie Mike Thomas's (Phillips Holmes) wife Mary (Anita Page) is set up, arrested and jailed for prostitution, that part of the story didn't surprise New Yorkers, who had read for months of the activities of Chico Accatuna (the spelling of his last name varies), nicknamed the "human spitoona." Just as in the movie, this unsavory character would set women up for an arrest by the vice squad. Once the woman lost her job and reputation as the result of the arrest, criminals such as Lucky Luciano would then force these women into prostitution.

In this movie, Mary Thomas is sent to jail to discredit her, since she accidentally saw the bank book of the crooked Judge Moffett, played by Walter Huston. He had given it to his girlfriend when he told her to hide out while Lewis Stone's judicial commission was investigating Moffett and others for corruption. She moved in next door to the Thomases,in a rundown walk-up rowhouse, and managed to drop the bank book (which showed tens of thousands of dollars in the judge's secret account) into the crib of Mary's son when she dropped by.

At one point, this picture is as grim as any you will see. Mary is in jail. Her little boy is in a city foster care facility, crying his heart out. Mike, trying to spring her, goes to a lawyer who is a crony of Judge Moffet and informs the judge of Mike's plans. Moffet, lying on a sofa, tells an associate to "get me bad boys, very bad" to take care of the troublemaker cabbie. These "bad boys" beat the cabbie to a pulp, then put him on a slow boat to South America.

Now, Night Court is like a time capsule, a reflection of a world long gone. Mark Hellinger, the co-writer of the play the movie is based on, was a reporter who had first hand knowledge of the real life events he borrowed for the story. The hero in this movie is a cabbie, not a cop, a district attorney or any other government official. In this movie, except for Lewis Stone's character, all the public officials you see are on the take. As a result of the tremendous scandal involving Chico Accatuna and the compulsory prostition racket, the NYPD Vice Squad had a new name, the Public Morals Squad. This scandal helped get La Guardia elected Mayor and is the basis for this pre-code crime classic from MGM.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Five Weeks 'Til Christmas, Week 1: Miracle On 34th Street (1947)

Christmas is my favorite holiday and one of my favorite things about it is watching all the wonderful Christmas movies! I thought it would be fun to do a weekly countdown during the holidays (5 weeks, counting this week!) where each week I'll review one of my favorite Christmas films, starting today with the original 1947 version of Miracle On 34th Street.


The movie starts out in a festive atmosphere. It is Thanksgiving and the employees of Macy's department store are busy with preparations for the annual Thanksgiving day parade. Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hare) is in charge of the parade. She anxiously hires Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) to replace the man she hired to play Santa Claus when she discovers the original Santa is too intoxicated to even get on the float. Kris does such a good job that Mrs. Walker asks him to stay on in the role and be the department store's Santa. She soon has serious doubts about her decision when she discovers that her new Santa really believes he is Santa Claus.

Mrs. Walker is a working, single mother, who works for Macy's Department Store in New York City. Natalie Wood plays her daughter, Susan. As the result of a failed Marriage, Doris raises her daughter to accept reality. There is no room for fantasy or make believe in her life. Susan is a quiet, child who acts more like a grown up than a 6 year old. She has difficulty using her imagination, and has become just as skeptical as her mother. Since Kris believes that "the important thing is to make children happy," winning the affection of Susan and her mother is his main objective.

Whether or not Kris is the real Santa Claus, there is no doubt that he seems to have an influence on almost everyone he meets--except for Macy's staff psychologist .Mr. Sawyer believes that Kris is delusional, and has him committed to thrown into a mental institution. In order to get out, Kris must face a court hearing, where not only is his sanity questioned, but the state of New York will decide if there really is a Santa Claus. Fred Gailey (played by John Payne) a neighbor of Doris Susan Walker agrees to represent Kris. The predictable end to the story is that Fred and Doris become attracted to each other, and as Fred works hard to secure Kris' freedom, Doris finds herself not only believing in Kris, but also in believing in fantasy.

Maureen O'Hara portrays Doris Walker with poise and sophistication. Although the movie is over 55 years old, the idea of a single working mom trying to raise her daughter after a bitter divorce, tells a story that is relevant by today's standards. Natalie Wood does such a good job at playing as the bright six year old, Susan, that you can almost imagine her going straight from being a baby to being an adult. John Payne, as Fred Gailey, predictably plays the handsome attorney who falls in love with Mrs. Walker. Finally, Edmund Gwenn's portrayal of Santa Claus is so believable. The Oscar he won for this part was well-deserved.

Miracle On 34th Street is a very touching film that's an essential to watch this holiday season!

I hope you enjoyed this review, and stay tuned for next week's installment!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Trouble In Paradise was the first talkie romantic comedy that Ernst Lubitsch made for Hollywood. Prior to this, he made many very funny silents and a couple of dramas and musicals. But it was on Trouble in Paradise where his directorial strengths came into play. With sophistication, and good timing, Lubitsch rewrites the rules of romantic comedy. Lubitsch is at his best when he has his leads (Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, and Kay Francis) just banter between themselves. His suggestive actions and subtleties are far funnier than straight slapstick.

Marshall and Hopkins are a couple of con artists who meet while trying to con each other. They fall in love and get married. They then fall into an opportunity to con Francis. Francis and Marshall fall in love, and you can probably guess the rest of the plot.

The cast is first rate. Marshall walks through this film never losing his sense of sophistication, even when he knows the jig is up. Hopkins turns on the charm as needed and is hilarious in a small bit with Eva McKenzie at the beginning of the film. Francis is beautiful as their high spending foil. Nice work is also turned in by Charlie Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton and C. Aubrey Smith. Also, the sets and costumes create a gorgeous, enticing Art Deco world that's a little hard to leave when the movie ends.

Interestingly, when Paramount tried to reissue this film in 1935, it was turned down because of the production code and the same thing happened in 1942. But this is a superb comedy that definitely deserves your attention. It's a real pleasure to watch.