Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Anne of Green Gables (1934)

Anne of Green Gables (1934)
Anne Shirley and O.P. Heggie in a publicity shot for Anne of Green Gables (1934)

"I cannot imagine my red hair away. I do my best but it's no use. It will be my lifelong sorrow." - Annie Shirley

It's the film that gave actress Anne Shirley her name.

Anne of Green Gables (1934) stars Anne Shirley as Anne (with an "e") Shirley, the protagonist of L.M. Montgomery's beloved series of books. It was a surprise hit for RKO who had secured the rights to the story but severely underestimated its potential. Directed by George Nicholls Jr. and with musical direction by Max Steiner, this is a charming adaptation that gives us a brief taste of the world of Anne of Green Gables. I say that because this 78 minute film can only capture so much of the idyllic fictional town of Avonlea and its residents. Reading the book and devouring the TV mini-series will give you much more. (And if you're a weirdo like me you also watch the Anne of Green Gables animated series for kicks.) It's not a faithful adaptation but Anne Shirley does a marvelous job with her role and you can't help but want to reach through the screen and hug O.P. Heggie who plays Matthew Cuthbert.

O.P. Heggie in Anne of Green Gables (1934)
O.P. Heggie in Anne of Green Gables (1934)

Brother and sister Matthew (O.P. Heggie) and Marila Cuthbert (Helen Westley) live at Green Gables. They are getting on in years and could use some help around the house and on the farm. They send for a boy from an orphanage. Not only do they get a girl instead of a boy, they also get a lot more than they bargained for with the energetic Anne Shirley. She's got a crazy imagination, a mouth that keeps yapping away and bright red hair. And she's also got the biggest heart. We follow her adventures as she adjusts to life in Avonlea, has a less than stellar start with future beau Gilbert Blythe (Tom Brown) and befriends her bosom buddy Diana Barry (Gertrude Messinger).

Anne of Green Gables (1934)
Helen Westley, Anne Shirley and O.P. Heggie in Anne of Green Gables (1934)

Anne Shirley is one of the most beloved and complex characters of fiction for a reason. She is the embodiment of individuality and gives us all license to our weird quirky selves. We love Anne for her wild ideas, her flowery language, her love of people, her rambunctiousness, her red locks and even her fragile ego. Anne energizes everyone around her. She breathes life into Matthew and Marila who up until that point were just going through the motions. We see her breathe new life into them and into others too.

Readers of the novel and the audiences of the many adaptations of the story can’t help but see Anne as their own bosom friend. But it goes beyond that. Anne is a character many young women admire. Not only do we want to be Anne, we want to fall in love with Gilbert, be friends with Diana, hug Matthew and please Marila. And we want to frolic around Prince Edward Island too.

Anne Shirley is full of spirit even though she comes from rather dire circumstances. Everything seems to be going against her. She’s an orphan who doesn’t seem to be wanted by anybody. Her red hair doesn't help matters either. Even the Cuthberts aren’t quite sure what to do with her, although they are quickly won over. The system tries to break her down but her personality withstands it all.

Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables (1934)

I’ve always had a deep love for Anne of Green Gables. The novel by L.M. Montgomery is one of my favorites and the character of Anne Shirley is one I keep close to my heart. Matthew Cuthbert is also very special to me. I consider him the sweetest character in all of fiction. For those of you who were affected by his storyline in the novel, you’ll be happy to know that it’s altered in this film to save you some heartache.

Anne of Green Gables (1934) gives you a glimpse into the world of Anne and Avonlea. It’s really an appetizer more than a full course. Because it’s such a short film much is missing but the essence is still there. Tom Brown adeptly plays Gilbert Blythe, a romantic character who rivals Austen’s Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice for devotees. There are lots of great performances in this film most notably the leads Anne Shirley, who embodies the spirit of the character, O.P. Heggie, whose facial expressions as Matthew are spot on, Helen Westley as the tough Marila and Sara Haden as busybody Mrs. Barry.

Tom Brown in Anne of Green Gables
Tom Brown as Gilbert Blythe in Anne of Green Gables (1934)

Anne of Green Gables (1934) captures all the charm of the original story. What it lacks in plot it makes up for in ambiance. This film s is available on DVD-MOD from Warner Archive.

Anne Of Green Gables (Mod) from Warner Bros.
Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I received Anne of Green Gables (1934) from Warner Archive for review.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937)

Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937)

As we count down to another summer Olympics, this year marks the 80th anniversary of the 1936 summer Olympic games held in Berlin, Germany. It was a time rife with political, racial and ethnic tensions. Hitler and the Nazis were growing in power and the Olympics was an ideal platform for their propaganda. A remark made by a villain in the film Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937) beautifully illustrates how the games were symbolic of something much greater than the sports being played in the stadium:

"A most illuminating spectacle Mr. Chan -- the nations of the world about to struggle for supremacy on the field of sports. Yet behind all this there is another struggle going on constantly for world supremacy in a more sinister field." - Zaraka to Charlie Chan

What could bring Charlie Chan, the humble police detective from Honolulu, all the way to the Berlin for the Olympic games? International espionage of course! In director H. Bruce Humberstone’s Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937) the drama starts with a mysterious plane crash. Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) and his #2 son Charlie Chan Jr. (Layne Tom, Jr.) investigate. The test pilot was murdered and an important new invention has been stolen; a military device that controls airplanes remotely. It turns out the device is in the possession of a lady wearing a white fox stole, Yvonne Roland (Katherine DeMille) . She’s on a boat along with hundreds of Olympic athletes heading to Germany for the games. Roland’s part of an international spy ring and is on a mission deliver the device (often referred to as a robot) to the diplomat from an unspecified country Charles Zaraka (Morgan Wallace). Several people want to get their hands on that device and Charlie Chan is on the case to retrieve it for the US government.

Layne Tom Jr., Warner Oland and Keye Luke in a publicity still for Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937)

"Hasty accusation like long shot on horse race. Odds good but chances doubtful." - Charlie Chan

It just so happens that Charlie Chan’s #1 son Lee (Keye Luke) is on his way to the Berlin Olympics too. He’ll be there to compete in the 100 meter swim. Lee takes over from Charlie Chan Jr, who is left behind in Honolulu, as his father’s sidekick. There are multiple story lines going and Lee is not only trying to compete at the games but he’s also trying to help his dad solve a mystery and to patch things up between his friend and fellow athlete Betty Adams (Pauline Moore) and her beau Richard Masters (Allan Lane), who is smitten with the mysterious Yvonne. At one point Lee is kidnapped and the ransom is of course the device. Charlie Chan faces the international spy ring head on with some help from the Berlin police.

"Truth, like football, receive many kicks before reaching goal." - Charlie Chan

Charlie Chan at the Olympics is the 17th film in the Charlie Chan series and the 14th starring Warner Oland as the title character. It’s the first film featuring Layne Tom, Jr. as one of Chan’s sons and his performance in this film is quite charming. He went on to make a other Charlie Chan films with Sidney Toler. The DVD’s special features includes an interview with Layne Tom, Jr. who passed away last year.

Warner Oland and Katherine DeMille in Charlie Chan at the Olympics
 Katherine DeMille’s performance as the exotic and mischievous Yvonne is notable. She was the adopted daughter of legendary direct Cecil B. DeMille. I thought Lee, #2 son, and his storyline were particularly interesting. His character is clearly infatuated with Betty and could whisk her away from her beau Masters who only seems to only have a halfhearted interest in a relationship with her. But the audience knows this is completely out of the question because Lee is Asian-American and Betty is Caucasian. It’s a sad reminder of race relations during that era.

As an entry in the Charlie Chan series this film holds up because of two very special factors: the Berlin Olympics and the Zeppelin Hindenburg.

Jesse Owens relay race (Source)

Although some scenes take place in the Olympic village and the Berlin Olympic Stadium, everything was filmed on the 20th Century Fox lot and at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with stock footage of the actual games stitched in to establish the setting. The Berlin Olympic games were televised on Fernsehsender "Paul Nipkow", Germany's first TV station, and German film director and producer Leni Riefenstahl was given an enormous budget to film the epic 4 hour documentary Olympia. There exists a lot of footage of these games some of which was used (source unknown) in Charlie Chan at the Olympics most notably the opening ceremony and Jesse Owens competing in the 4X100 sprint relay. Jesse Owens becomes a minor part of the story as we see some of the actresses playing American Olympic athletes cheer him on from the sidelines. For classic film fans who plan to watch Race (2016), a Jesse Owens biopic in theatres now, it’s a good idea to go back in time and dip into this curio of a film.

The film is very careful to exclude any elements Nazi culture. The Berlin police display their national pride but there is no mention of Hitler and they don't wear Swastikas on their uniforms. Footage of the Zeppelin Hindenburg was edited so that the Swastika on the tail is not visible.

Zeppelin Hindenburg (Source)

When Charlie Chan is abroad it’s usually because he’s on vacation and happens to be around to solve a mystery. In this case, Charlie Chan travels quite a distance to help solve a case. The film lays out his journey from Hawaii to German: 18 hours from Honolulu to San Francisco, then a 13 hour flight to New York, travel to Lakehurst NJ and take 61 hour flight on the Zeppelin Hindenburg to Hamburg. Charlie Chan at the Olympics was released on May 21, 1937 just a couple of weeks after the infamous Zeppelin Hindenburg disaster . Despite the catastrophe and the developments with Hitler and the Nazis, this film still made it to theaters against all odds. An IMDb trivia bit says this film was pulled shortly after its release but I found no concrete evidence of that.

Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937) is a curiosity not to be missed by classic film enthusiasts and history buffs alike. It suffers from a convoluted plot and too many characters but is still a decent entry into the series. The film is available on DVD as part of Fox’s Charlie Chan Boxed Set Volume 2.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Big Shot (1942)

“He was a big shot once.”

The 1930s saw Humphrey Bogart in countless crime dramas playing every different variation on the gangster character. It wasn’t until the early 1940s, thanks to some poor decisions made by fellow actor George Raft, that Bogart’s career would do an about face. Raft turned down High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon (1941) and these two films launched Bogart into mega stardom. George Raft also bailed out on another film, the lesser known Warner Bros. movie The Big Shot (1942) which would serve as Bogie’s goodbye to the gangster film genre. It would the last vestige of that former career.

“You can’t be a crook anymore because you used up your chances. And you can’t be honest because nobody’ll let you.” – Bogie as Duke Berne

Bogart stars as Duke Berne, a career criminal who just got out of prison for the third time. One more strike and he’ll be in the hoosegow for life. He’s determined to make an honest go at things but the police have a close eye on him and his old cronies are back to rope him into another heist. This time it’s an armored car they’re after and District Attorney Fleming (Stanley Ridges) is the brains behind the operation. Turns out Fleming is married to Duke’s old flame Lorna, played the dazzling singer turned actress Irene Manning. Lorna convinces Duke to bail on the heist and spend the night with her instead.

“This armored car is no can of corn.” – Bogie as Duke Berne

The heist goes terribly wrong and Duke is misidentified by a witness, thanks to police coercion, and sent to prison for life. Lorna is his only alibi but neither can reveal that they were together that night. Salesman George Anderson (Richard Travis), desperate for money so he can marry his girlfriend Ruth Carter (Susan Peters), is hired as a fake alibi but things go terribly wrong for everyone involved. We know from the onset that things won’t turn out well for Duke. The first scene of the film shows Duke in the hospital ward of a prison dying with George and Ruth by his side. The majority of film is a flashback revealing Duke’s tragic story.

Directed by Lewis Seiler, The Big Shot (1942) is part film noir, part gangster flick, part courtroom drama and part prison film. This is a rare Bogart film which is an odd thing to say considering how easy it is to access the majority of Bogart’s film work. It was unavailable for a long time, I always missed it when it was on TCM and I was very happy to see Warner Archive made it available on DVD. I was particularly interested in this film because of Susan Peters, a favorite actress of mine who was at the height of her career in 1942. That same year she would land a plum role in Random Harvest and she would be nominated for an Oscar for that performance. 1942 also saw Bogart in the mega classic Casablanca so needless to say it was a really good year for him too.

This film is very flawed but still enjoyable to watch. There is a lot of fantastic dialogue delivered expertly by Bogart and even though Bogart and Manning didn’t get along on set they do make an electric pair on screen. Some of the cinematography in the film is delightful. There is one scene in which Bogart reveals himself from behind a curtain and he is lit to perfection. Some of the editing is not that great and while I don’t have a fine tuned eye for this sort of thing it was quite noticeable in this film which is a bad sign. There are several plot lines which makes this film more a series of vignettes than one continuous story.

The biggest problem with the film is the black face. Isn’t that always a problem when it appears in old movies? Not to reveal too much about the plot but one of the pivotal scenes towards the end of the film involves a fellow prisoner of Duke’s donning black face for a prison talent show. The black face itself is not really a plot element, just something this character did, but it does date the movie for contemporary audiences. It may also be one of the many reasons this film remains relatively unknown.

Bogart completists need to watch The Big Shot (1942). And who isn’t a Bogart completist? I know I am! The Big Shot is an oddity and an entertaining one at that.

The Big Shot (1942) on DVD is available from Warner Archive.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I received The Big Shot (1942) from Warner Archive for review. 

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