Sunday, 12 February 2017
1931: The Public Enemy
The Public Enemy: If the silent era of American cinema was dominated by escapism in the form of romantic melodrama, comedy and swashbuckling adventure, it seems that by the time sound had become established the studios were discovering an appetite for something darker and grittier.
Mervyn LeRoy's "Little Caesar", released in January of 1931, was the first great gangster picture, and it defined the form: Young man gets in with the wrong crowd, quickly makes the transition from juvenile delinquent to murderous gangster, then suddenly it all goes wrong, leaving him precious little time to reflect on the error of his ways. But like "Dracula" (see below), "Little Caesar" is technically undistinguished and looks for the most part like a filmed play. William Wellman's "The Public Enemy", released just a few months later, raises the bar considerably. This is one of the first true sound films - not merely a silent film with added dialogue or a stage production with added camera, but one that used sound creatively. Much of the most brutal action happens offscreen, but is none the less shocking for it. When the two young gangsters, Tom Powers (James Cagney, practically inventing the art of sound movie acting) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) spot their double-crossing old boss "Putty Nose" in a nightclub they tail him back to his flat to settle the score. Putty Nose pleads for his life, and tries to remind them of their old camaraderie by singing at the piano, but is abruptly cut off as Tom shoots him. We don't see this happen because the camera discreetly pans over to Matt's horrified face, then we only hear the gunshots and the discordant notes as Putty Nose slumps over the keyboard,
Equally shocking in a different way is the breakfast table scene in which Tom, irritated by his girlfriend's needy attitude, loses his temper and pushes his grapefruit in her face. No-one gets killed or injured but the sheer unabashed contempt of the action hits you like, well, like a grapefruit in the face. (William Wellman reportedly included the scene because he often felt like doing it to his own wife.)
The film's most powerful moment, though, is purely visual - Tom's 'homecoming' in the final scene of the film, and its effect on his brother. It features one the most disciplined moments of acting - by Cagney - you'll ever see.
Also from 1931:
Dracula: Strange as it seems now, Dracula revolutionised the American horror film genre not only by being the first major horror talkie, but by introducing a supernatural element, something preceding films of the silent era avoided. It looks somewhat stilted and stagey to the modern eye, partly through Tod Browning's going-through-the-motions direction and partly through being an adaptation of the stage play, rather than the book, but the perfomances save it. Edward van Sloan's strong, dignified van Helsing, Dwight Frye's unhinged Renfield - more comic than horrific today but still a tad chilling and a joy to watch - and of course Lugosi's definitive, hypnotic interpretation of the Count himself.
It's worth adding a word about Lugosi: Despite popular belief, he didn't play Dracula in numerous sequels to the exclusion of all else. He played many and varied roles in horror films of the 30s and 40s, always to great effect, and only played Dracula on screen in one other film: 1948's "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" - and brought sufficient dignity to that picture (as did Lon Chaney Jr) that it's more worth watching than some of the preceding 'serious' Universal monster movies.
Spanish Dracula: Filmed concurrently with the English language version, George Melford's direction easily outstrips Tod Browning's, but Carlos Villarias isn't in Lugosi's league. He's exactly like a bloke you know from work who's gone to a Halloween party as Dracula.
Frankenstein: The other first great monster movie of the sound era, and by far the better of the two I think - great in so many ways, but mainly in Boris Karloff's performance as the monster. He combines the innocence of a newborn child with the rage of a wounded animal, and creates a character both terrifying and sympathetic. It's easy to parody the grunting speech and the lumbering walk, but it was a true original in its time and an achievement seldom, if ever, matched in the history of horror films. Dwight Frye shows his versatility as Dr Frankenstein's hunchback assistant Fritz (not Ygor - he makes his first appearance in 1939's "Son of Frankenstein" - played of course by Bela Lugosi.)
M: Fritz Lang's first sound film, featuring a chilling performance by Peter Lorre as a serial child killer, is horror of a very different kind. As stylish and compelling as you'd expect from the master, but especially notable for the scene in which Lorre accuses the 'kangaroo court' of professional criminals who plan to lynch him. He admits his crimes but pleads that he is the victim of a monstrous compulsion - that he has no control over his actions and did not choose to be the way he is, unlike his accusers who are criminals by choice.
City Lights: Chaplin raised a few eyebrows by continuing to make silent pictures after everyone else had moved on, even Keaton and Lloyd - though neither of them managed to carry their success over into the sound era, but 'City Lights' was a huge success. A blind flower girl mistakes Chaplin's tramp for a rich man. The tramp, having fallen for the girl, has to use all his wits to find the money to have her sight restored.
Typical for Chaplin, himself a child of the London stage, the story has echoes of Victorian melodrama, but is carried off with such virtuosity I defy you not to get just a little choked up at the end.
One of its best sequences, an extended visual gag in which the Tramp tries to dislodge a stick from a sidewalk grating, was cut from the finished film and not rediscovered until the 1980s.
Pardon Us: Arguably, the comedy crown had by now passed to Laurel and Hardy. Well established in short comedies, this was their first feature - though like others before them it took them a film or two to master the form. It seldom gets shown today perhaps because of racial sensitivity - Stan and Ollie escape from prison and hide out among a village of plantation workers by blacking up - though there isn't a hint of malice in it, and it gives Hardy the chance to show off his sublime singing voice with a rendition of 'Lazy Moon'.