Thursday, June 02, 2016

The Year in Movies: 1929

The Mysterious Island (1929)

About the only thing this movie has in common with Jules Verne's novel is the title, but that's a-okay. There is a reclusive scientist (Lionel Barrymore) with a submarine on an island; it's just that everyone knows he's there. Which is too bad for him when a former friend (character actor Montagu Love, who's probably best known as Zorro's dad in the Tyrone Power version) wants to steal his technology in order to power a military coup.

The new plot is pretty great though. There's a romance between Barrymore's sister (Jacqueline Gadsdon, who has a small role in It) and one of the lead workers on the submarine project (Lloyd Hughes, who was Ed Malone in the 1925 Lost World movie). Better than that is how things spin out of control once Love's character invades the island. Barrymore's two subs fall into hands on opposite sides of the conflict, leading to an undersea battle and ultimately to the discovery of an undersea city, merpeople, and a giant octopus. Totally fun.

The Manxman (1929)

It's hard for me to like this early Hitchcock melodrama about two friends in love with the same girl. Mostly that's because Anny Ondra and Malcolm Keen's characters have to make ridiculous decisions in order to drive the plot. But once I'm past that, I do enjoy the drama of the position they put Carl Brisson's character in. And the Isle of Man is a great setting for the story.

Pandora’s Box (1929)

It's rough to watch the characters in Pandora's Box - especially Louise Brooks' - go through the ringer the way they do. Some of it's their own doing, but not all of it. Some of it they do to each other and it becomes a depressing spiral into despair. And yet there's a glimmer of hope at the very end for one of the characters, even though it's made possible by something horrible that happens to one of the others. Thoroughly sad, but capped with just a hint of catharsis.

The Canary Murder Case (1929)

I had high hopes for William Powell and Louise Brooks together in a murder mystery, but sadly, this is no Thin Man. I've seen a couple of other Philo Vance movies (at least one other one with Powell and the one with Basil Rathbone, for sure) and I'm not crazy about the detective. Powell and Rathbone are both too cool for the dandy that I feel like Vance is supposed to be, and neither is as awesome as Vance as they are as Nick Charles and Sherlock Holmes. Vance comes off as an also-ran kind of character and The Canary Murder Case is about that level of story.

Brooks plays an evil nightclub performer with a long line of jilted and/or blackmailed men who would benefit from her death. After A Girl in Every Port and Pandora's Box I'm tired of seeing Brooks play snotty, entitled characters, so already we're off to a bad start. The mystery is also pretty easy to figure out, even though the way the killer covered their tracks is ludicrously unbelievable. I still like seeing two of my favorite actors onscreen, but I kept wishing I was watching them in something else.

The Iron Mask (1929)

Speaking of wishing I was watching something else, I'll never complain about Douglas Fairbanks, but for spoilery story reasons, I prefer other versions of The Man in the Iron Mask to this. I've never read the novel, so maybe this one is totally faithful, but I still don't care for how it ends. It also takes a crazy long time to set up the Iron Mask scenario.

I'm not thrilled either with the device of turning the movie into a talkie by having Fairbanks simply narrate over silent movie footage. Fairbanks has a great voice and I don't particularly miss intertitles, so it's fine from a creative standpoint. It just feels like a cheap way of making a sound version when other productions were doing things like having actors dub their voices onto an audio track.

Ultimately, if I want to see Fairbanks playing D'Artagnan, I'll re-watch his version of The Three Musketeers.

Blackmail (1929)

Hitchcock gets more into thriller territory with this story about a woman who kills in self-defense, but wants to cover it up. And as the title suggests, someone makes that difficult for her. Complicating matters is the case's getting assigned to her police detective boyfriend. It's a great setup with some tense moments, but sadly it doesn't wrap up very well. The ending is rushed and its unclear how events have affected the characters.

The Cocoanuts (1929)

Probably my favorite Marx Bros movie. I never know what Zeppo contributed to the group, but it has strong bits by Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. Especially great are the two-rooms scene, the auction, "Why a duck?," and Harpo's reaction to boring speeches.

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

After the thoroughly depressing Pandora's Box, I wasn't sure I was ready for another Louise Brooks/GW Pabst collaboration, but Diary of a Lost Girl is beautiful and lovely. It's the antithesis of Pandora's Box, which was about a woman whose own flaws were largely responsible for her downfall. In Diary, Brooks plays a woman whose fall is no fault of her own, but because of the cruelty and heartlessness of people who are supposed to be looking out for her. She makes the most of it though and finds first a modicum of joy, and then finally a new family and purpose. It's uplifting and challenging at the same time. Loved it.

The Virginian (1929)

It's surprising how many parallels there are between this and High Noon, starting with their lead actor. Both sort of end up being about a lawman who has to face an enemy over the objections of his new wife. But where Will Kane is frustratingly inscrutable in High Noon, making him seem selfish and proud, I know exactly what drives the original Man With No Name.

The Virginian spends plenty of time setting up the conflict between its anonymous title character and Trampas, the villain. It's because of Trampas (in part, anyway) that the very sweet friendship between the Virginian and his best pal goes horribly wrong. That's not enough to force the showdown though and Trampas continues needling Cooper's character until he feels he has no choice but to throw down in the town's streets. When the Virginian explains this to his fiancée (Mary Brian, who was Wendy in 1924's excellent Peter Pan) she doesn't understand, but I do. And the film's spent enough time on her that I also understand why she doesn't.

Tarzan the Tiger (1929)

Tarzan the Tiger has some of the problems that many serials do with the same groups of characters being captured by, escaping from, and getting recaptured by the same groups of other characters. But not to the extent of, say, Son of Tarzan. For the most part, Tarzan the Tiger stays fresh and moves quickly. Some of that's because it mixes up the scenery between Tarzan's jungle mansion, the jungle itself, an Arab slave camp, and the hidden temple-city of Opar. Villains are defeated through the course of the story and new ones come along to take their place, though there are a couple of consistent ones, too. Allegiances shift. It's an above-average serial.

Frank Merrill is an impressive Tarzan, physically. He wears a goofy wig and headband - and I'm never excited about the look of over-the-shoulder furs - but he's ripped and handsome. Natalie Kingston is a great Jane, too. She needs saving a couple of times, but she saves Tarzan too and there's a way of watching the serial in which she's the hero and he's the MacGuffin. When he goes missing in the jungle, she throws on her own junglewear and heads out in search of him. By the end, they're a team, with neither overshadowing the other.

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