Millie (1931)

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Helen Twelvetrees in a melodrama for the ages!
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US / 85 minutes / bw / RKO Dir: John Francis Dillon Pr: Chas. R. Rogers Scr: Chas. Kenyon, Ralph Murphy (i.e., Ralph Morgan) Story: Millie (1930) by Donald Henderson Clarke Cine: Ernest Haller Cast: Helen Twelvetrees, Lilyan Tashman, Robert Ames, James Hall, John Halliday, Joan Blondell, Anita Louise, Edmund Breese, Frank McHugh, Charlotte Walker, Franklin Parker, Charles Delaney, Harry Stubbs, Louise Beavers, Harvey Clark, Aggie Herring, Geneva Mitchell, Hooper Atchley, Lillian Harmer.

Willows University student Jack Maitland (Hall) captures the heart of poor but lovely redhead Millicent “Millie” Blake (Twelvetrees) and persuades her to elope with him. Three years later they’re installed in a luxury New York apartment with Jack’s mother (Walker) and the couple’s infant daughter Connie (uncredited). In theory Millie should be content that she has all the good things in life, but in reality Jack is neglecting her—being frequently away “on business”—and she’s much of the time forced to relinquish her child to the cares of a governess (Harmer). So she’s delighted when one day, out of the blue, she gets a phone call from her childhood friend Angie Wickerstaff (Blondell).

Angie (Joan Blondell) and Helen (Lilyan Tashman) are cutting corners.

Angie has come to NYC to live with her pal Helen Reilly (Tashman), and suggests the three of them meet up at a local café; what she doesn’t mention on the phone is that Continue reading

The Black Raven (1943)

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It is a dark and stormy night . . .
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US / 61 minutes / bw / Sigmund Neufeld Productions, PRC Dir: Sam Newfield Pr: Sigmund Neufeld Scr: Fred Myton Cine: Robert Cline Cast: George Zucco, Noel Madison, Byron Foulger, Robert Middlemass, Charlie Middleton, Robt. Randall, Wanda McKay, Glenn Strange, I. Stanford Jolley.

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Years ago Amos Bradford (Zucco) was a criminal mastermind known as The Black Raven. Now he runs a remote inn, also called The Black Raven, somewhere near the border with Canada. Tonight a stranger arrives, Whitey Cole (Jolley)—although he’s no stranger to Amos, but the partner he left to carry the can when he evaded the cops one final time before assuming the mantle of respectability. Whitey’s escaped from the pen with ten years of his sentence still to go. Now he wants to settle up with Amos one last time . . .

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Whitey Cole (I. Stanford Jolley) arrives on the scene.

But then Amos’s dimwit handyman, Andy (Strange), bursts in out of the howling gale, and between the two of them Amos and Andy (yes, really) subdue Whitey:

Andy: “What was the matter? Didn’t he like the service?”
Amos: “He’s suffering from rabid delusions aggravated by a moronic mentality.”
Andy: “Is that bad?”

Other guests arrive seeking shelter from the storm, all of them in one way or another relying on the inn’s reputation as the last stopping point on the way to refuge in Canada. First to arrive is gangster Mike Bardoni (Madison)—his name spelled “Baroni” in a newspaper headline we see, but that’s B-movies for you. He knows of Amos’s past as The Black Raven and wants his aid in Continue reading

Suspense (1913)

US / 10 minutes / bw / Rex Dir: Lois Weber, Phillips Smalley Scr: Lois Weber Story: Au Téléphone (1902 play; vt At the Telephone) by André de Lorde Cast: Lois Weber, Valentine Paul, Douglas Gerard, Sam Kaufman, Lule Warrenton.

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A short but—just as it says on the label—surprisingly suspenseful silent movie.

Mamie the maid (Warrenton) walks out on her job because she’s fed up of living in the middle of nowhere. She leaves behind her employer, the Wife (Weber), and the Wife’s small baby; the Wife’s Husband (Paul) is at work—at a guess he’s a banker. Finding Mamie gone, the Wife gets a bit nervous, especially when she looks out the window and discovers that a sinister-looking Tramp (Kaufman) has approached the house and seems intent on Continue reading

Gang Smashers (1938)

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US / 59 minutes / bw / Toddy Dir: Leo C. Popkin Pr: Harry M. Popkin Scr: Hazel Barnes Jamieson, Phil Dunham, Zella Young Story: Ralph Cooper Cine: Robert Cline Cast: Nina May McKinney (i.e., Nina Mae McKinney), Lawrence Criner, Monte Hawley, Mantan Moreland, Reginald Fenderson, Eddie Thompson, Vernon McCalla, Charles Hawkins, Everett Brown, Neva Peoples, Arthur Ray, Bo Jenkins, Phil Moore and His Orchestra.

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I’m sure I’ve ranted about this on Noirish before, but it’s way past time that someone made a determined effort to recover and restore the “race movies.” Made between about 1910 and the early 1950s, these typically featured all-black casts and were shown to all-black audiences, and were produced outside the Hollywood system on budgets that made Poverty Row enterprises seem positively DeMillean. Because of the cheapness, the production standards generally weren’t high and the acting could on occasion be amateurish; moreover, there was a reluctance to tackle genuine African American problems in the race movies, probably because most of the studios creating work in this genre were white-owned. Despite all this, the movies often show great verve, and some of the acting is top-notch; here you can see many fine African–American actors in leading roles who could get nothing but bit parts, often racially demeaning caricatures, in Hollywood productions.

Because the race movies flew under the radar of cinema historians until relatively recently, they were neglected to the point that only about 20% of the five hundred or so thought to have been made still survive, and most do so only in pretty appalling condition. So far as I know—and I confess a deal of ignorance here!—none of them have been restored in Criterion-like fashion. Please advise in the comments if I’m wrong.

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The great Mantan Moreland as Gat’s sidekick, Gloomy.

Gang Smashers is, I gather, a tad unusual among race movies in that it focuses on the relatively contentious (for the late 1930s) issue of black-on-black crime. In other words, in any other context you’d regard it as a thriller, a borderline noir. I admit it was Continue reading

Hotel Imperial (1927)

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Pola Negri stars in a high melodrama!
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US / 77 minutes / bw / Paramount Dir: Mauritz Stiller Pr: Erich Pommer Scr: Jules Furthmann, Edwin Justus Mayer Story: Hotel Imperial (1917 play) by Lajos Biró Cine: Bert Glennon Cast: Pola Negri, James Hall, George Siegmann, Mickael Vavitch, Max Davidson, Otto Fries, Josef Swickard, Nicholas Soussanin.

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The opening title of this intriguing silent movie sets the time and place:

“Somewhere in Galicia, March, 1915—when Austrian fought Russian on Austrian ground.”

This is worth remembering because, according to the Turner Classic Movies online database, the movie is set in Hungary. The same site shows a capsule review by Leonard Maltin, which summarizes the plot thus:

“As WW1 floods over the map of Europe, a squad of Austrian soldiers seeks sanctuary in a small village inn, only to find it occupied by enemy Russians. Chambermaid Negri holds the key to their survival.”

This is less worth remembering because, while it does bear some similarities to the movie’s plot, they’re no more than similarities. Also less worth remembering is that IMDB renames Vavitch’s character—calling him Tabakowitsch rather than Petroff—with the result that TCMDB and Wikipedia call him Tabakowitsch as well. I suspect he may have Continue reading

Shadow of the Law (1930)

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Can William Powell really be the hardened criminal he seems?
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US / 70 minutes / bw / Paramount Dir: Louis Gasnier Scr: Max Marcin, John Farrow Story: The Quarry (1913) by John A. Moroso Cine: Charles Lang Cast: William Powell, Marion Shilling, Natalie Moorhead, Regis Toomey, Paul Hurst, George Irving, Frederick Burt, James Durkin, Richard Tucker, Walter James, Oscar Smith, Harry Strang.

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After a night on the town—seemingly their first date—young engineer Jim Montgomery (Powell) brings home his somewhat hatchet-faced upstairs neighbor at the swanky Franklin Apartments on NYC’s 72nd Street, Ethel George (Moorhead), and inveigles his way into her apartment on the pretext of “a last cigarette” (“or cigar,” he suggests in a Pre-Code manner).

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Jim and Ethel come across Ethel’s lover Lew (Richard Tucker).

Alas, waiting therein is her brutish lover, Continue reading

Hell Harbor (1930)

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An early role for the “Mexican Spitfire” in a tale of Caribbean derring-do!
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US / 83 minutes / bw / Inspiration, UA Dir & Pr: Henry King Scr: Fred DeGresac, Clark Silvernail, N. Brewster Morse Story: Out of the Night (1925) by Rida Johnson Young Cine: John Fulton, Robert M. Haas, Mack Stengler Cast: Lupe Velez, Jean Hersholt, John Holland, Gibson Gowland, Harry Allen, Al St. John, Paul Burns, George Bookasta, Ulysses Williams, Ruth Hall, Rondo Hatton, Sextetto Habanero.

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Velez’s second talkie—after Tiger Rose (1929) dir George Fitzmaurice—is a comedy- and music-laced melodrama that, despite suffering some problems of pacing, is really quite entertaining, primarily because of Velez’s effervescent presence.

Hell Harbor, a colony somewhere in the Caribbean, is largely populated by the descendants of pirates. One of these is Anita Morgan (Velez), daughter of Henry Morgan (Gowland), the several-times-great grandson of the famous pirate likewise called Henry Morgan. Anita’s dream is to escape from her often abusive father and the cesspit of Hell Harbor to live in Havana, Cuba, which she regards as a sort of heaven on earth:

Anita: “I want to see Havana now! Havana, with its music, its riding carriages . . . and wash all over every day!”

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Peg Leg (Harry Allen) strikes a bargain with Horngold for the pearls.

Her father is not just a brute but a murderer. In the movie’s opening scenes we see an English drifter called Peg Leg (Allen) sell a Continue reading

Crime Patrol, The (1936)

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To box in the ring or to bag criminals? A simple Joe must choose!
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US / 59 minutes / bw / Mayfair, Empire Dir: Eugene Cummings Pr: Harry S. Knight Scr: Betty Burbridge Story: Arthur T. Horman Cine: Bert Longenecker Cast: Ray Walker, Geneva Mitchell, Herbert Corthell, Hooper Atchley, Wilbur Mack, Russ Clark, Max Wagner, Virginia True Boardman, Henry Roquemore, Snub Pollard, Kernan Cripps.

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Bob Neal (Walker) is an up-and-coming boxer who, despite being the genial type and fundamentally honest, sees no harm in hanging out with some pretty nasty lowlifes. One of these, Vic Santell (Mack), tells him he must throw his next fight, against a cop called Morley (uncredited), in the fourth round. Although it goes against the grain, Bob does his best to obey, but mistimes his “knockout” so that he’s saved by the bell for the end of the round. In the fifth, Morley taunts him and Bob, his dander up, delivers a knockout blow that Continue reading

Bad Company (1931)

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A psycho mobster falls for his sidekick’s wife, with lethal consequences!
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US / 76 minutes / bw / RKO Pathé Dir: Tay Garnett Pr: Charles R. Rogers Scr: Tom Buckingham, Tay Garnett Story: Put on the Spot (1930) by Jack Lait Cine: Arthur Miller Cast: Helen Twelvetrees, Ricardo Cortez, John Garrick, Paul Hurst, Frank Conroy, Harry Carey, Frank McHugh, Kenneth Thomson, Arthur Stone, Emma Dunn, William V. Mong, Edgar Kennedy, Robert Keith.

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It has been claimed that this is the first movie to feature what would later become an iconic cinematic figure in such movies as WHITE HEAT (1949): the psycho gang boss. That boss is played here by Ricardo Cortez, an actor whom one might have assumed to be too bland, too suave, for the role, but in fact he renders it excellently.

Helen King (Twelvetrees) is in love with Steve Carlyle (Garrick), and when he proposes to her aboard the Dalton—the yacht belonging to her brother Markham “Mark” King (Conroy)—she says “Yes!” with all her heart. What she doesn’t know and won’t learn until very much later is that Steve is the protégé of mob leader Goldie Gorio (Cortez). What Steve doesn’t yet know is that King is in actuality the mysterious “Mr. Davis,” the mob boss who has control of the city’s West Side—the East Side is Gorio’s—and that the two bosses have been covertly maneuvering the lovers toward each other:

King: “In the old days, when two powers were at war, the daughter of one royal family was given in marriage to the son of the other. The result was permanent peace.”
Gorio: “So, besides getting the dame you want, Goldie Gorio and, uh, King gets themselves a setup with no interference, hijacking or rough stuff.”
Steve: “That’s great.” [to King] “And you’re willing to hold still for your own sister marrying a hoodlum that’s liable to ‘get his’ any minute?”

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Goldie Gorio (Ricardo Cortez) is full of faux charm.

Steve wants out, so that he and Helen can live a normal life together, but that’s not an option:

Gorio:You’re getting out? There’s only one way out, and you’re too young and beautiful to Continue reading

Unashamed (1932)

US / 76 minutes / bw / MGM Dir: Harry Beaumont Scr: Bayard Veiller Cine: Norbert Brodine Cast: Helen Twelvetrees, Robert Young, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt, John Miljan, Monroe Owsley, Robert Warwick, Gertrude Michael, Wilfrid North, Tommy Jackson, Louise Beaver (i.e., Louise Beavers).

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Naughty nightclub life.

This was the first of two movies released in 1932 to be based on a celebrated Philadelphia murder case, in which Eddie Allen killed Francis “Skinny” Donaldson, the lover of Eddie’s younger (in fact, underage) sister Rose. The other was Two Against the World (1932) dir Archie Mayo, with Constance Bennett, Neil Hamilton, Helen Vinson, Allen Vincent and Gavin Gordon, which I haven’t seen but obviously should. Although the Eddie Allen/Skinny Donaldson case was widely described as an honor killing, justified under the so-called “unwritten law,” there seems from my limited reading about it to have been a good deal more involved—it was a sort of premeditated self-defense killing. In Unashamed it’s reworked as something akin to a crime passionnel.

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Joan (Helen Twelvetrees) dreams of romance as she dances with Harry.

Rich man’s daughter Joan Ogden (Twelvetrees) has contracted an unsuitable relationship with wide boy Harry Swift (Owsley), whose main talents are gambling, playing polo and spending money he doesn’t have. Although Continue reading