Film Review: Modern Times (1936)

Also known as: The Masses (working title)
Release Date: February 5th, 1936 (Rivoli Theatre, New York City premiere)
Directed by: Charlie Chaplin
Written by: Charlie Chaplin
Music by: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Chester Conklin

United Artists, 87 Minutes

Review:

“[from the Telescreen in the restroom to the factory worker] Hey! Quit stalling, get back to work! Go on!” – President of the Electro Steel Corp.

I’m going to start this by saying that Modern Times is one of my two favorite Charlie Chaplin films. The other is City Lights and it’s hard to put one of these over the other. But this may have a bit of an edge, as I think the factory worker sequences are Chaplin’s best.

This film covers a lot of ground, narratively speaking, for something that’s less than 90 minutes. But in the time that this came out, it’s much longer than most of the Chaplin films before it.

It starts with the Tramp character working in a factory, as the film rolls on, we see him start to break down and eventually go a bit crazy. He’s institutionalized, gets cured and then hits the streets trying to rebuild his life. Along the way, he meets Paulette Goodard’s Ellen, a bit of a troublemaker but her shenanigans are because she’s trying to feed her hungry siblings.

A romance develops and the chemistry between Chaplin and Goddard is pretty natural but maybe we were seeing them actually fall in love, as the two were married for a few years after this picture.

Chaplin really does give one of his best performances here and the stunts were some of the most creative and impressive. While it seems to be going for more of a straight comedy route with the gags than trying to wow us with Chaplin’s resilient physicality, it doesn’t feel like that stuff is lacking. And his routines here are still impressive.

For instance, the balcony roller skating scene is more nerve wracking than physically impressive. But stuff like this isn’t less effective or more effective than Chaplin’s more physical slapstick. I guess that he proved that he didn’t need to beat himself up to still get audiences to love him. Plus, by 1936, that stuff may have been taking a real toll on his body.

Modern Times is a sweet movie that features one of the most beloved film characters of all-time. What’s not to love? This is one of Chaplin’s greatest films and for good reason.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: Chaplin’s greatest works: City LightsThe Great Dictator and A King In New York.

Film Review: Humoresque (1946)

Release Date: December 25th, 1946 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Jean Negulesco
Written by: Clifford Odets, Zachary Gold
Based on: Humoresque: A Laugh On Life with a Tear Behind It by Fannie Hurst
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: Joan Crawford, John Garfield, Oscar Levant, J. Carrol Naish, Joan Chandler

Warner Bros., 125 Minutes

Review:

“Tell me, Mrs. Wright, does your husband interfere with your marriage?” – Sid Jeffers

I wasn’t sure what to think about this film going into it, as I didn’t know much about it. It pops up on a lot of film-noir lists but if I’m being honest, it’s barely film-noir.

At its core, Humoresque is a romantic drama with a nice musical touch to it, as John Garfield’s character is a well renowned violinist, whose musical career is central to the plot.

The film stars Joan Crawford as an alcoholic socialite mess that is enamored with Garfield’s violin skills to the point that she pretty much starts managing his career.

As the film rolls on, she falls in love with him and we get a bunch of turbulence that ultimately ends pretty darkly.

I think the noir aspects of the film are the cinematography and the twists and turns of the plot. Even though this is focused on romance and business instead of crime and murder, it does have strong similarities to the noir style.

Plus, Crawford dabbled in film-noir quite a bit and this fits better with her noir work than many of her other films.

The acting was absolutely stellar and Crawford was exceptional from your first glance at her up until that powerful final moment.

This isn’t really my cup of tea but I still enjoyed it for the performances, the music and the visual style. It’s certainly a very well made motion picture and I can understand why it’s beloved by some classic film aficionados.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other Joan Crawford noir-esque pictures: The Damned Don’t Cry, Mildred Pierce and Possessed.

Film Review: The Unknown (1927)

Also known as: Alonzo the Armless (working title)
Release Date: June 3rd, 1927 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Tod Browning
Written by: Tod Browning, Waldemar Young
Cast: Lon Chaney Sr., Norman Kerry, Joan Crawford, Nick De Ruiz

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 63 Minutes, 49 Minutes (BFI print), 49 Minutes (alternate cut)

Review:

“You are right, Alonzo… brute strength does not mean everything to all women. Alonzo, all my life men have tried to put their beastly hands on me… to paw over me. I have grown so that I shrink with fear when any man even touches me.” – Nanon

Lon Chaney Sr. was really the first iconic horror actor. Some others dabbled in the genre and were in multiple films but none made the impact that Chaney did at the time. He was the original King of Terror.

Even though he often time played facially disfigured characters, he would also modify his body to fit the role. In this film, his face was normal but he worked with his arms bound in a corset for most of the picture, as his character was believed to be armless.

Now there is a twist where you find out that he indeed has his arms but he goes on to get them chopped off for the love of a girl.

The story is dark and twisted and it’s very evil and very primal. It is still hauntingly effective and has aged just about as well as a silent film can.

Chaney plays Alonzo, a circus performer that uses his feet to do a myriad of tricks. The reason for the ruse is because he is wanted for a murder but all that is known about the suspect is that he has a double thumb. To hide this deformity, Alonzo goes through life with his arms bound tightly under his clothing.

He falls in love with Nanon, however, and she has an issue with men’s hands touching her. She feels safe around Alonzo because he has no hands to grab her. After a kiss, Alonzo decides to have his arms removed so that Nanon doesn’t find out his dark secret. Plus, she witnessed a man with a double thumb murder her father.

However, after spending weeks recovering, Alonzo returns to discover that Nanon has overcome her fear and is marrying the circus strongman.

The story is insane but it’s damn good and entertaining. It fits a lot into the short running time.

Also, Nanon is played by a very young Joan Crawford, well before she became a superstar.

The film is well shot and the tone is perfect. This is one of the best Chaney movies and Tod Browning utilized the actor’s talents well. The film builds suspense at the right pace and the big finale is a satisfactory payoff.

I love this movie and it really should be considered a silent horror classic. While it’s not as well known as it should be, it’s pretty exceptional and a spectacular production for its era.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: other collaborations between Tod Browning and Lon Chaney Sr.

Film Review: The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)

Release Date: April 7th, 1950 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Vincent Sherman
Written by: Harold Medford, Jerome Weidman
Based on: a story by Gertrude Walker
Music by: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Cast: Joan Crawford, David Brian, Steve Cochran, Strother Martin (uncredited)

Warner Bros. Pictures, 103 Minutes

Review:

“Don’t talk to me about self-respect. That’s something you tell yourself you got when you got nothing else.” – Ethel Whitehead

The first fifteen minutes of this film sucked me right in. It had a very effective start but then it didn’t let go as it rolled on.

Man, I just really loved Joan Crawford in this. She’s always a treat to see in anything but something about how she played this role felt a little bit more organic and closer to her real personality and charm, as opposed to being the centerpiece in a tightly controlled and meticulously crafted big Hollywood production. Not to say that this wasn’t a tightly controlled and meticulously crafted big Hollywood production but it seemed like she had more room to breathe with her performance. I’d almost say that there was more emphasis on freedom of performance and realism than just trying to make her look gorgeous mixed with a touch of viciousness.

As the story goes on, we see Crawford play out the typical femme fatale shtick. She uses her sex appeal and charm to work her way up the social chain from man to man, not caring much about how she burns them on the way. So it should go without saying that this doesn’t lead towards a happy ending for most of the main players. But there is a dark twist at the end, which surprised me, considering how the morality code in Hollywood worked at the time.

It’s fun watching this story escalate and seeing characters turn into monsters as it progresses, all because of the selfish actions of one broken woman. It’s a movie where likable characters evolve into unlikable ones, even if you initially just see them as victims of Ethel’s (Crawford) toxic antics.

The story moves at a pretty brisk pace and it doesn’t relent from start to finish. The plot has a lot of pieces and clever swerves but it’s crafted well and goes off without a hitch. This had some solid screenwriting work from Harold Medford, as well as Jerome Weidman.

This also had crisp cinematography and obviously the lighting was fine tuned to make Crawford glow but the picture also has a dark and brooding, organic grittiness to it. Sure, a lot of it looks like classic Hollywood and fantastical in its magic but the movie is well balanced between the shiny veneer and the darkness that the veneer is made to distract you from. You see beyond the beautiful and superficial topical layer, right into the abyss that’s waiting to pull all these people down.

This is a top notch film-noir, from a top studio and featuring one of the top stars of the era. I can’t say it enough, Crawford was an absolute gem in this and it’s strange to me that this isn’t one of her better known motion pictures.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other Joan Crawford film-noir pictures like Mildred Pierce and Possessed.

Film Review: Daddy-O (1958)

Also known as: Out On Probation (working title), Downbeat
Release Date: March, 1958
Directed by: Lou Place
Written by: David Moessinger
Music by: John Williams
Cast: Dick Contino, Sandra Giles, Bruno Vesota, John McClure

American International Pictures, 73 Minutes

Review:

“Couldn’t help ya if I wanted to, fella. Gym policy.” – Bruce Green

Daddy-O is really only notable for two things.

One, it was the first motion picture scored by movie music maestro John Williams.

Two, it was featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Other than those two things, this would probably have been lost to time, an ancient relic forgotten and swallowed up by the massive trash heap of terrible movies that’s buried somewhere deep, underneath Hollywood.

The film stars accordion maestro Dick Contino and a lot of bad ’50s styled pop tunes. It features youth trying too hard to be counterculture, a badly filmed car race and dancing that looks more like mental patients having a party in the seizure ward.

The humor is dry and terrible, the dialogue is atrocious, the direction is ineffective and the cinematography is so basic that it has an app that sends push notifications when it’s pumpkin spice latte season.

Daddy-O, for all its faults, isn’t the worst movie ever featured on MST3K but it is still tough to get through on its own. Like most MST3K movies, it’s best watched within the framework of that show because there’s too much material to riff on and you’d be bored senseless otherwise.

However, I did actually like the music that John Williams contributed to the film. But when the opening credits of booming Williams tunes to the sight of a car wheel spinning is the highlight of a film, you’re left with a long strip of celluloid that would have been more useful cut into 4 inch strips for bookmarks.

Rating: 2/10
Pairs well with: other terrible excuses for old school youth movies: The BeatniksUntamed Youth, Catalina Caper and The Choppers.

Film Review: The Gangster (1947)

Also known as: Low Company (reissue title)
Release Date: November 25th, 1947
Directed by: Gordon Wiles
Written by: Daniel Fuchs
Based on: Low Company by Daniel Fuchs
Music by: Louis Gruenberg
Cast: Barry Sullivan, Belita, Joan Lorring, Akim Tamiroff, John Ireland, Sheldon Leonard, Elisha Cook Jr., Charles McGraw, Shelley Winters

King Brothers Productions, Allied Artists Pictures, 84 Minutes

Review:

“Your wife called. What should I tell her?” – Shorty, “Tell her I dropped dead.” – Nick Jammey

The Gangster came out at a time when Hollywood was over gangster pictures. Even though it defied the big studio trends and was also put out by a studio on Poverty Row, it was still a pretty solid success and very much taps into the film-noir style.

What’s most interesting about this film is it’s production value. King Brothers didn’t believe in building expensive or elaborate sets. They also didn’t want to waste money on location shoots. Almost everything was built with light wood and cardboard on the cheap. This gives the film an otherworldly look though. It feels more like a dream sequence or a stage show production with confined sets. It’s sort of magical in this way and even with these frugal tactics, it still looks good.

One thing I like is that there is a high chiaoscuro style in a lot of scenes due to how walls and ceilings were painted. There are multiple shots of a black and white checkered or striped background, which make the actors pop off the screen in the foreground. The use of lighting is fantastic and the high contrast look with heavy shadows protects the look of the set, keeping imperfections in the dark.

For a Poverty Row production, this also has some good acting. Not only that but it has small roles for a lot of notable stars. Shelley Winters, Elisha Cook Jr., John Ireland, Charles McGraw and Akim Tamiroff all show up in some form. There are other familiar faces, as well.

The Gangster is a film that wasn’t on my radar until now, thanks to TCM’s Noir Alley. I was glad to see it and it’s a film that I will have to slide somewhere into my Top 100 Film-Noir list.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: DesperateScene of the Crime and White Heat.

Film Review: The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Release Date: April 27th, 1928 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Paul Leni
Written by: J. Grubb Alexander, Walter Anthony, Mary McLean, Charles E. Whittaker
Based on: The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo
Music by: Ernö Rapée, Walter Hirsch, Lew Pollack, William Axt, Sam Perry, Gustav Borch
Cast: Mary Philbin, Conrad Veidt, Brandon Hurst, Olga V. Baklanova, Cesare Gravina, Stuart Holmes, Samuel de Grasse, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell

Universal Pictures, 110 Minutes

Review:

“[via subtitles, to the House of Lords] A king made me a clown! A queen made me a Peer! But first, God made me a man!” – Gwynplaine

This is sort of the swan song to the typical German Expressionist style, even though it was an American film. The director was German and Conrad Veidt, the title character, originally made his mark in the expressionist film style. Plus, even though this takes place in England, the sets look very German, especially for the time.

Now while it shares a strong resemblance to German Expressionism, it isn’t as surreal as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or as brooding as Nosferatu. But it still has a darkness to it and even though IMDb and other places categorize this as horror, it is very light in that regard. In fact, the only thing one can argue that fits the horror genre is the grotesque disfigurement of the title character.

Veidt plays Gwynplaine, a man who, as a boy, had his mouth disfigured by a king to look like a creepy smile. As a child he meets Dea and over the years they fall in love, even though Gwynplaine feels he is unworthy of her due to his disfigurement. Gwynplaine constantly wears a scarf over his mouth unless he is performing in the freak show of his traveling carnival. Dea, however, is blind and she sees her blindness as a blessing as it lets her see the true Gwynplaine.

As the film rolls on, it is revealed that Gwynplaine has a right to the throne and he is then pushed into a marriage with a Duchess, who is pretty much a horny vixen that weirdly is turned on by his disfigurement. But all Gwynplaine cares about is spending his life with Dea in his arms.

The character of Gwynplaine is one of the most iconic in cinema history, even if he is mostly forgotten by modern audiences today. His look was the inspiration of the Joker in the Batman comics. He would also inspire the look of the title character in the iconic ’60s horror picture Mr. Sardonicus. Most recently, the origin of his smile was an inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker, as played by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.

This also came out during the time when film was transitioning from silent pictures to sound. Initially, this was released as a purely silent movie but due to its quick success it was re-released with a score, it’s own theme song and added sound effects.

The plot is based off of a Victor Hugo story, which the studio thought would help capture some of the magic they had with the adaptation of his more famous story The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Regardless of that, The Man Who Laughs stands quite strongly on its own.

This is a well crafted movie, the narrative flows nicely and the acting is exceptional, as you fall in love with a few of these characters and you want to see Gwynplaine achieve the happiness he yearns for.

A solid motion picture, through and through, The Man Who Laughs is one of the finest pictures of its era.

Rating: 9.25/10
Pairs well with: other German Expressionist films with a dark edge: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, The Golem, etc.