I've been cutting back on my film going since being laid off in July. This is why no one has seen me creeping around the Harvard Film Archive or the venerable Brattle Theater. In place of all that, I've been working my way through a pile of old black and white films on VHS that have been taking up space in my cramped "closet o' video". I bought most of these out of the dollar bins from various collectors and "private source" providers. In many cases they were purchased on grounds that they were old and if they sucked I could always use the tape to record that week's episode of "Lost".
So, with that in mind I present some capsule reviews of the highlights from this "VHS backlog cinema". Don't be surprised if some of these titles end up being screened by Channel Zero-we are a thrifty franchise after all.
"Madame Satan" (1930) Directed by Cecil B. DeMille starring kay Johnson and Reginald "Commodore Schmidlapp" Denny. Utter claptrap from the King of tissue paper thin super spectacles. Kay Johnson plays an uptight society dame who adopts a "masked slut" persona to win back her philandering husband at a ball given on a zeppelin! If the damn gasback hadn't exploded and crashed (neatly prophesying the Hindenburg disaster) the whole thing would've been a waste of time.
"The Miracle Woman" (1931) Directed by Frank Capra starring Barbara Stanwyck, David Manners, Sam Hardy with Charles "Ming the Merciless" Middleton.
Day-um but this was a good movie! Its like a distaff flight-test for "Meet John Doe" except instead of that monolith Gary Cooper we get a grand performance from Barbara Stanwyck. Babs plays "Faith Fallon" a phony faith healer modeled on the late Aimee Semple McPherson. Blind guy David Manners blows into town and shows her the error of her ways and gets her out from under her greedy manager Sam Hardy. My only other exposure to David Manners was his stilted performance in "Dracula", here he shows himself a champ, equal to Stanwyck's histrionics in every way. Why this film isn't available on legit video I do not know.
"Judge Priest" (1934) Directed by John Ford starring Will Rogers, Stepin Fetchit, and Anita Louise.
Oh geez I wanted to like this one I really did, Will Rogers was a funny funny guy...in an era of over-the-top type comedians he had the courage to underplay everyone and everything. Rogers is a country judge je's trying to keep the lid on a insular community still befuddled by the Civil War. Alas, that setting, Kentucky circa 1896 full of happy happy darkies and presided over by derogatory negro caricature Stepin Fetchit makes this a hard sell. Haven't seen racial content this blatant since "Birth of a Nation"...but still I laughed.
"Meet the Baron" (1933) Directed by Walter Lang starring Jack Pearl, Jimmy Durante, Zasu Pitts, Ted Healy, Moe Howard, Curly Howard, and Larry Fine with Edna may Oliver.
This is largely a vehicle for now forgotten radio comic Jack Pearl and his dopey "Baron Munchausen" act. The Baron and his "manager" Jimmy Durante crawl out of the jungle and pass themselves off as fearless explorers at "Cuddle College for Women".
Inane yes, but a lavish MGM style dance sequence in the girl's showers (??!!) occasions an appearance by the janitors played by Ted Healy and the Three Stooges when the water runs out. Blindfolded, they stumble into the shower-room and start hacking away at the pipes with pick axes and shovel! Durante is funny, but he is a manic malaprop comedian paired up with Jack Pearl who pretty much does the exact same routine except with a burlesque house kraut accent. Still, the Stooges are funny in their three big scenes, one can see why Moe deposed Ted Healy, he added exactly nothing to the act.
"King of the Jungle" (1933) Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone and Max Marcin starring Buster Crabbe, Frances Dee, and Sidney Toler.
I once asked my aged father why all the "Tarzan" actors started out as championship swimmers. He wisely replied that the swim champs were the only guys who did the requisite bodybuilding back in the departed days of Herbert Hoover.
Makes sense to me.
This is future Flash Gordon Buster Crabbe's first film after winning gold at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. His main qualifications are his physique and sharp profile, also his willingness to wrestle what looks like an aged but frisky lion.
Crabbe stars as "Kaspa the Lion Man" a game Tarzan impersonator who gets captured with his favorite big cats and dragged back to civilization to perform in a circus. He is befriended by a lovely schoolteacher who educates him on the modern wage-earning ecomnomy whilst Kaspa puts his cats through their paces in the ring. Alas though, you can take the boy out of the Congo, but you can't take the Congo out of the boy, as our hero longs to return to his native veldt. A timely circus fire gives him the opportunity to rescue his pride and prevent a vast horde of frightened animal acts from demolishing Savannah Georgia in what is a scene of unintentional surrealism. you know this isn't a bad film, the producers were smart enough to let the concept run seventy five minutes befoire neatly wrapping everything up. Nobody strains Crabbe's nascent acting chops with complicated emoting or dialogue and an elephant charges a cross-town bus...what more do you want?
TW 2005 is our TENTH Anniversary as "Boston's Most Notorious Entertainment Franchise", undoubtedly we will so something to mark the occasion, but first Humble John needs to find a job.