Thursday, December 7, 2023

Ladies They Talk About (1933)

Ladies They Talk About (1933) is one of the original women-in-prison films and is perfectly suited for the Pre-Code era. Directed by Howard Bretherton and William Keighley for Warner Bros., Barbara Stanwyck stars as Nan Taylor, a glamorous gun moll and a member of a bank robbing gang led by Don (Lyle Talbot) and Lefty (Harold Huber). Nan is a career criminal and has her job down pat. She's just needs to distract the cops and the people in charge while her cohorts do the dirty work. But one day her plan doesn't quite work out and she ends up in the clink. The comes her knight-in-shining-armor David Slade (Preston Foster). He's a hymn shouting reformer who broadcasts his religious sermons over the radio and hosts popular revivals in the city. He's got significant influence on the public and on local politicians and he takes a particular interest in Nan. It doesn't hurt that he's attracted to her too. Nan isn't quite sure about him and while he tries to save her from a conviction she winds up in San Quentin (when they used to house both male and female prisoners) anyways.

Now Nan needs to navigate the social politics of a women's prison. She quickly befriends the spunky and no-nonsense Linda (Lillian Roth) who becomes her sidekick. Linda introduces Nan to a motley crew of characters. There's Aunt Maggie (Maude Eburne), a former madame and an important ally for Nan. Mustard (Madame Sul-Te-Wan) who gets into quite the battle of social dominance with a seemingly high-and-mighty prisoner. Keeping watch over the crew is Noonan (Ruth Donnelly) a hard-nose but sympathetic prison matron who always has a cockatoo on her shoulder. Nan makes an enemy in Susie (Dorothy Burgess), one of David Slade's devoted followers who seethes with jealousy at Nan's romantic connection with him. Nan soon needs to decide whether she's going to give this David Slade guy a chance or risk it all by continuing her life of crime.

You really can't go wrong with a Pre-Code prison movie. There are so many good ones of the era including 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), Paid (1930) and my personal favorite The Big House (1930) (which I reviewed here). Ladies They Talk About is thoroughly enjoyable despite a rather weak romantic storyline. The main draw really is the women-in-prison sequences. There's a reason this subgenre became popular during the exploitation era. It's titillating! Ladies They Talk About really has fun with the women's prison. Barbara Stanwyck's cell is decked out with fancy pillows, dolls, flowers, a dresser and even a gramophone to play records. The prisoners smoke cigarettes, do their hair and makeup and wear lingerie. One of them even gets to keep a pet dog. The film offers some outrageous fun with a crime drama and opposites-attract love story serving as just window dressing. How many other films boast Lillian Roth singing a love song to a picture of Joe E. Brown?!

Revisiting Ladies They Talk About sent me down the research rabbit hole about radio evangelism of the 1920s/1930s. While most people forget Preston Foster is even in this movie, I took special note of his character on this viewing. They tone down the religious elements—most likely to not offend any denominational groups—but it's clear that Foster's character represents the era when these figures influenced public morality through radio broadcasts and in-person revivals. This subject matter comes into play more prominently in another Barbara Stanwyck Pre-Code movie The Miracle Woman (1931) in which she plays an Aimee Semple McPherson type.

Ladies They Talk About was based on the play Women in Prison by Dorothy Mackaye who based the story on her own time locked up in San Quentin. In the late 1920s, Mackaye was a stage actress married to song-and-dance performer Ray Raymond and embroiled in a passionate affair with another actor Paul Kelly. On April 26th, 1927, a drunk Raymond and an equally drunk Kelly got into a fight at Raymond and Mackaye's apartment. Kelly beat Raymond so brutally that when Raytmond went to bed that night he fell asleep and never woke up. Mackaye tried to clean up the mess her lover made by bribing the coroner to change her husband's autopsy report finding from blunt force trauma to natural causes. Her scheme backfired. Both Kelly and Mackaye went to trial, were convicted and subsequently sent to San Quentin. Mackaye and Kelly reunited and married once Kelly served his time. She wrote about her experience in a play and Kelly was able to continue his acting career.  I haven't gotten my hands on the original play yet but I'd be curious to see how much of her own story was in the play and what was changed for the movie adaptation.

Ladies They Talk About (1933) is available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection. It’s also available on DVD in volume #5 of the Forbidden Hollywood series.

The Blu-ray is from a 1080p HD Master from 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative. Bonus features include English language subtitles, a theatrical trailer and the Warner cartoon Merrie Melodies: I Like Mountain Music

Thank you to the Warner Archive Collection for sending me Ladies They Talk About for review!

I share more thoughts about the film and the Blu-ray on episode #6 of The Classic Movie Roundup on YouTube. Watch here:

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Beverly of Graustark (1926) Undercrank Productions

photo credit: Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive
Undercrank Productions, Library of Congress

Beverly of Graustark (1926) stars Marion Davies as Beverly Calhoun, cousin to Oscar (Creighton Hale), the prince heir of the fictional kingdom of Graustark. Beverly has intimate knowledge of the family and specifically Oscar with whom she was raised almost as sibling. Graustark is expecting his arrival for the coronation but shortly before setting out on the journey Oscar is severely injured in a skiing accident. General Marlanax (Roy D'Arcy) convinces Beverly that she can pretend to be Oscar and complete the journey for him. Oscar hasn't been seen publicly since he was an infant and Beverly is the one person who knows Oscar well enough to play him. Beverly dresses in royal uniform and makes the treacherous journey to Graustark. On the way, Beverly meets Dantan (Antonio Moreno) a dashing and handsome goat farmer who saves Beverly/Oscar from an ambush. Dantan takes on the task of being her bodyguard not knowing that Oscar is really Beverly. The two begin to fall for each other causing a major identity crisis for Beverly who is eager to become herself again.

photo credit: Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive
Undercrank Productions, Library of Congress

This film is an adaptation of George Barr McCutcheon's 1904 novel Beverly of Graustark. McCutcheon wrote a series of books about the fictional kingdom of Graustark a few of each had been adapted. Beverly of Graustark had previously been adapted in 1914 with actress Linda Arvidson in the title role. This 1926 adaptation was made at MGM where Marion Davies was a contract star. A castle set was built specifically for the movie and outside the studio on location shooting was done in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

I enjoy stories about gender and identity and while the conceit of Beverly of Graustark is not terribly believable, Marion Davies does a fantastic job playing both Beverly and Beverly pretending to be Oscar. She looks quite handsome in her royal uniforms! She's matched beautifully with one of the Latin Lovers of early cinema, Antonio Moreno. They both carry the film when the plot is lacking.

Marion Davies also starred in Little Old New York (1923), another film where she plays a young woman dressed like a man. I enjoyed that one better than Beverly of Graustark but also believe both could be enjoyable in a double bill. I reviewed the DVD release of Little Old New York from Undercrank Productions last year.

Beverly of Graustark is available on Blu-ray from Undercrank Productions. The film was digitally restored from a 4k scan of a 35mm nitrate print from the Library of Congress’ National Audio Visual Conservation Center. The Blu-ray contains this restoration along with the 2-strip Technicolor sequence and an original score from silent film accompanist Ben Model. There are no extras but the restoration looks fantastic and the Technicolor sequence is a treasure (many others from this era are lost).

Thank you to Undercrank Productions for sending me a copy for review.

I share more thoughts about the film and the Blu-ray on episode #6 of The Classic Movie Roundup on YouTube. Watch here:

Thursday, November 30, 2023

AKA Lucy by Sarah Royal

AKA Lucy
The Dynamic and Determined Life of Lucille Ball
by Sarah Royal
Foreword by Amy Poehler
Running Press
Hardcover ISBN: 9780762484263
240 pages
October 2023

“Lucy is one of America’s greatest works of art.” — Amy Poehler

Lucille Ball was a force of nature. Her\ chaotic energy combined with her feminine aura created her unique brand of charisma that made her a legend. What impresses me most about Lucille Ball was her tenacity. She was a hard worker, incredibly driven in both her professional and personal life and always had the dogged determination to make her dreams come true. Lucille Ball went from being a chorus girl, to becoming the queen of Bs at RKO (and eventually owning the studio!), to then becoming the star, alongside her husband Desi Arnaz, of one of the most beloved and best-known TV shows of all time. Ball wasn't a natural born comedian. Instead, her talent for slapstick humor came from her perfectionism. She worked on her craft until it was perfect, making audiences believe it was her natural born talent and not something that required hours of work to make it look easy. 

“I’m not ashamed to say that I stole liberally from her… She kind of paved the way for people like me to do [physical] comedy on sitcoms.” — Dick Van Dyke

AKA Lucy: The Dynamic and Determined Life of Lucille Ball by Sarah Royal is a celebration of this powerhouse entertainer, successful business woman and devoted wife, mother and friend. It's authorized by the Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and the author is a pop culture historian who specializes in women in comedy. 

The book doesn't read like a traditional biography which is its strong suit. It offers a way to experience a bit of Lucille Ball in book form rather than simply take in a bunch of information about her. In the introduction the author promises the reader that they'll "discover feminist achievements, a passionate love affair, dissections of humor, communist accusations, struggles in Hollywood’s golden age and a classic rags-to-riches tale.”

Each chapter has a different theme. Some are biographical essays presented in chronological order. Others are timelines of Lucille Balls' life and certain aspects of her career or breakdowns of her comedy styles and notable episodes of I Love Lucy. Career-wise the book primarily focuses on her work in television with I Love Lucy and the subsequent spin-offs. 

Her film career is lightly touched upon. Some of the films discussed at length include Roman Scandals (1933), Stage Door (1937), Dance Girl Dance (1940), Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), Lured (1947), The Long, Long Trailer (1954), The Facts of Life (1960), etc. There was no real information about my favorite Lucille Ball film Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) alas. While I would have liked to have read more about her films, the intended audience here is really the I Love Lucy fan who wants to learn more about the beloved star.

interior spread courtesy of Running Press
source: Edelweiss

interior spread courtesy of Running Press
source: Edelweiss

The book also goes into great detail into her marriage to Desi Arnaz. It's clear that Lucille Ball went to great lengths to make that marriage work. The book goes easy on Desi Arnaz and only lightly touches upon his infidelity, jealousy issues and his drinking problem.

Some interesting facts from the book: 
  • Upon the death of her father, she believed that birds were a bad omen and was terrified of them for the rest of her life.
  • Lela Rogers, Ginger Roger's mother, was instrumental to her career: “Lela Rogers helped Lucy get her teeth straightened and hair fixed and made sure she learned how to do her makeup well, dress suitably, read literature to expand her vocabulary, how to treat agents and producers properly, and rehearse…”
  • Seeing Dorothy Gish in person do something silly "reinforced for [Ball] that glamorous actresses could have a goofy side, too."
  • Lucille Ball was friends with Carole Lombard and even after Lombard died considered her a mentor in spirit.
  • Had it not been for Ball insisting that I Love Lucy be shot in Hollywood instead of New York City, the show would not have been recorded on 35mm (to ensure proper broadcasting quality) and then may have not been saved at all. This also helped the show become one of the original series that enjoyed reruns.
  • Lucille Ball was to name her daughter Susan after her good friend, actress Susan Peters, but Desi Arnaz took hold of the birth certificate before Lucille could and named their daughter after Lucille. (This angered me immensely!)
  • She loved playing Backgammon because the game stimulated her brain in the same way working on a television episode would.

AKA Lucy is presented in a beautifully designed unjacketed hardcover. The book has gorgeous interior spreads designed with pops of bold color that make it really pleasing to the eye. Throughout the book are quotes from various people in the business and family members about Lucille Ball which give the book a greater sense of intimacy. I also really liked the endpapers and the stunning cover which features a striking image of Lucille Ball in front of her own silhouette. Overall, it's a really nice package and would make for a great gift for the Lucille Ball/I Love Lucy fan in your life.

Thank you to Running Press for sending me a copy of AKA Lucy for review.

I share more thoughts about the book on episode #6 of The Classic Movie Roundup on YouTube. Watch here:

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