MINI REVIEW: A NOTORIOUS AFFAIR (1930)
OVERALL VERDICT: If you don’t have an ‘Examples of Kay Francis Being Inexplicably Delicious’ collection yet, start one and add this to it.
Let’s explain this early talkie trip-up in 5 images or less:
1: Publicity still. Moving on.
2: Kay Francis steals it as ‘the one who is going to sleep with your man. Period.’ And she’s more fun than...
3: ‘the faithful wife’ played (without a hint of irony) by Howard Hughes’s current favourite, Billie Dove. Ziegfeld girl. beautiful but meh. Married (not to Hughes). FOR NO CONCEIVABLE REASON her character marries...
4: ‘the most dislikeable OK-but-not-great violinist in the world’ - Basil Rathbone, with a characteristically British Italian accent unworthy of his actual brilliance. This is 5 production years before we’d see him fencing backwards over rocks as a characteristically British French pirate that 18yr old me couldn’t take her eyes off. Doesn’t he look good though!
5: ‘the doctor who’s supposed to be better than the husband’ (played by Kenneth Thompson) that Billie Dove plans to run off with. He’s not. She doesn’t. I don’t know why. 'Being played by Basil Rathbone’ doesn’t excuse hideous misogyny. And yet...
Image Sources: Pale Writer at Wordpress.com III Precode.com III IMDB III Me
Safe in Hell is as pure a pre-code as any movie fan could want. Dorothy Mackaill plays Gilda, a New Orleans prostitute who kills her rapist and goes on the lam to a Caribbean island with the help of her sailor fiance until things cool down. Stuck waiting for her lover to return, Gilda has to fight off lusty criminals and the vile attentions of the local hangman-- but then a series of events leads to violence.
The film is grimy-- you can feel the sweat and humidity-- and bleak while still sporting a robust sense of humor that keeps it from being soul-crushingly depressing to watch. Mackaill’s protagonist is among the most memorable of the era: strong and hard-boiled, yet sensitive and principled deep down. Director William Wellman is pretty much my favorite filmmaker of this period: his movies sport an understated style and storytelling prowess that elevate them above most early talkies, and his subject matter just captures the zeitgeist of the Depression so well.
The movie is also pretty progressive for the early 1930s in that its two prominent black characters are allowed to be played with individuality by Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse. It’s about the only film of this period I can think of where the black characters don’t speak in dialect-- Muse’s character actually uses British English as a way of subtly mocking the cutthroat and slimy atmosphere around him. It’s so sad that a performer talented as McKinney in particular had to be wasted on minor roles and stereotypes-- she just glows with charisma and mischievousness.
Unfortunately, the film’s DVD release is pretty rough-looking, but it’s not unwatchable. I highly recommend it to classic film buffs.
Ya know I'd actually love to see a proper remake of the 1932 The Mummy. Not that the Brendan Fraser one wasn't great. But it would be cool to have a more suspenseful, expressionist, moody, mysterious version. It could be done on a much lower budget.
Also, despite the orientalism inherent in a Western Egyptomaniac film, the original hasn't aged as badly as you'd expect. It follows the perspectives of sympathetic Egyptian lead characters in Imhotep and Helen, and they're more psychologically fleshed out (as individuals, not as representatives of a group) than the Western characters.
A remake that took that same perspective, and that, ya know, casted actual Egyptians as Imhotep and Helen, would feel fresh even today.
Unfortunately I don't think such a remake is really plausible. But a streaming series probably would be. And it could lay the groundwork for more pulpy but sophisticated weird fiction stories.
Greta Garbo’s talkie debut turns 90 years old in 2020!
Anna Christie is in some ways what we would call “canned theater,” a common enough state for a great deal of early talkies. Its story, adapted from a Eugene O’Neill play, is a little long in the tooth as well: a young woman reunites with her ne’er do well father for the first time since her childhood. He thinks she is a sweet girl who he gave a good home by leaving her with farm-owning relatives. Turns out, she was neglected, sexually molested, and eventually forced into prostitution. Now, she wants to start over and hide her painful past from both her father and a sailor she’s come to love. But this is a pre-code movie, so you might guess how her plan fares.
Despite its relative primitiveness (which, if you’re inclined to watch old movies anyway, likely won’t bother you), there are treasures galore in this movie. Garbo is wonderful as the weary but hopeful Anna, who will no longer be pushed around by men after a lifetime of victimization. Her climactic rant against her clingy, deluded dad and her possessive boyfriend is something to see. Marie Dressler is fantastic as the hard-drinking Marhty. Heck, even the primitiveness of the filmmaking works in the story’s favor to a degree: this is a grim movie and the lack of soundtrack helps the bleak atmosphere to manifest.