Gangs of New York (1938)

gangsofnewyork_1Starring Charles Bickford, Ann Dvorak, Alan Baxter, Wynne Gibson, Harold Huber, Willard Robertson, Max ‘Slapsie Maxie’ Rosenbloom, Charles Trowbridge, John Wray, Jonathan Hale

Directed by James Cruze

Expectations: Moderate.

onehalfstar


Gangs of New York was the first full script that Sam Fuller wrote and sold on his own, so it’s something of a shame that it’s not a better movie. Of course, as a Fuller fan I can always point to the other writers’ names that appear above Fuller’s in the credits as the ones who screwed up the story, or perhaps director James Cruze. They’re the ones that took Fuller’s script and reshaped it into the film at hand, after all. But Sam Fuller, as great as he became, is not infallible, so I’m sure some of the blame is his too. But what makes me lean away from this notion (other than my fandom) is the opening shot of the film. Fuller included the beginning of his screenplay in his memoir, so this opening is without a doubt the creation of Fuller.

Technically, this wonderful shot is the film’s second, but it’s hard for me to count stock footage of an elevated train as a shot. Anyway, we open on a dingy looking business with a car sitting curbside. The street is silent, until the sound of gun fire ricochets out from the building. Three men quickly descend the stairs exiting the building, jumping inside the car just before it speeds away. An injured man stumbles in pursuit, firing a pistol at the getaway car before keeling over. Some bystanders rush to help him, and a policeman comes from behind the camera, walking into the foreground to blow his whistle. This is all contained in a single, static, incredible shot, dense with action and storytelling to whet the audience’s appetite for a thrilling gangster picture. It’s the first of many fantastic, gripping openings from Sam Fuller’s mind, but unfortunately that’s about all the Fuller influence to be found here… outside of a few shots of story events being broken in the newspapers (which hardly counts).

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It Happened in Hollywood (1937)

ithappenedinhollywood_5It Happened in Hollywood (1937)
AKA Once a Hero

Starring Richard Dix, Fay Wray, Victor Kilian, Franklin Pangborn, Charles Arnt, Granville Bates, William B. Davidson, Arthur Loft, Edgar Dearing, James Donlan, Bill Burrud

Directed by Harry Lachman

Expectations: Moderate.

twohalfstar


It Happened in Hollywood may be the title that this film released with, but the film’s original title of Once a Hero (which for some reason is the on-screen title featured on the DVD release), is much more apt to describe the work at hand. Sam Fuller called this film his “first real screen credit,” and while it eventually led to bigger and better things for Fuller, It Happened in Hollywood feels like it contains even less of a Fuller influence than Hats Off did. But that’s OK, as this one is a much more cohesive and enjoyable film overall.

Like a great many films throughout the ages, It Happened in Hollywood is about a silent film star that has trouble making the transition to talkies. Unless I’m forgetting something major, this is the earliest film I’ve seen to use this somewhat common story framing device. I suppose this could be linked to Sam Fuller’s effervescent love of focusing on things relevant and topical before other filmmakers jump on the bandwagon.

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Hats Off (1936)

hatsoff_1Starring Mae Clarke, John Payne, Helen Lynd, Luis Alberni, Richard ‘Skeets’ Gallagher, Franklin Pangborn, Robert Middlemass, George Irving, Clarence Wilson

Directed by Boris Petroff

Expectations: Low.

twostar


When I first discovered classic films, I agreed with the sentiment that “They just don’t make them like they used to.” Over the years, I’ve come to realize that it’s not necessarily that films were better in the past, but that it’s only the top-level works that survive the passage of time. That took me a long time to come around to, but Hats Off is a perfect example of this principle. Of course, it wasn’t made with this intent, but viewing it over 75 years after its production definitely adds a different flavor.

Hats Off is centered around twin cities in Texas, Hempstead and Bradfield. Both towns are building large expositions, which are like small versions of a world’s fair type of event. Each town is racing to get their expo open first, and not only that, but to have them open with the biggest bang. To get this job done, both towns employ a press agent to get their expo into the newspapers. Oh, and this is a musical so there’s quite a few musical breaks throughout.

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Freaks (1932)

freaks_3Starring Harry Earles, Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor, Daisy Earles, Rose Dione, Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton, Schlitze, Josephine Joseph, Johnny Eck, Frances O’Connor, Peter Robinson, Olga Roderick, Koo Koo, Prince Randian, Elvira Snow, Jenny Lee Snow, Elizabeth Green

Directed by Tod Browning

Expectations: High.

threestar


Freaks is a weird little movie. It’s just so hard to classify. I’ve heard it most often talked about in the context of being a horror film, and in some ways it definitely fits that bill. Director Tod Browning had made the seminal classic Dracula for Universal just the previous year, so if nothing else Freaks has horror clout. But most of Freaks isn’t horrific at all, it’s a twisted love story as old as the hills. So why then has the film built up a huge cult following in the 80+ years since its release?

The simple answer is the casting. Instead of using makeup and prosthetics to achieve the circus freaks of the film, Tod Browning opted to use actual circus performers in the film’s roles. And not just as the background color, they fill out many of the major roles. This gives Freaks — even to this day — a spectacle-like quality that would otherwise be missing. The silent-era version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an interesting movie, one well-worth watching for dedicated film fans, but we all know that the hunchback is Lon Chaney in makeup and he’s not really hunchbacked. The performers in this film bring a reality to the screen that is rarely seen.

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Things to Come (1936)

thingstocome_1Starring Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Cedric Hardwicke, Maurice Braddell, Sophie Stewart, Derrick De Marney, Ann Todd, Pearl Argyle, Kenneth Villiers

Directed by William Cameron Menzies

Expectations: Moderately high.

threehalfstar


[There are spoilers for the ending and stuff like that in Paragraph 4 & 5. Sorry.]

Things to Come feels like the 2001: A Space Odyssey of its day. The film brings speculative fiction to life through thoughtful, imaginative ideas, instead of the ray guns and aliens that Hollywood usually likes to define science fiction by. Things to Come also doesn’t follow a traditional narrative, instead it plays almost like a dramatized history lesson of a possible future (complete with fantastic montages to cover broad gaps in time). There are characters who appear throughout the film, but I found that following their personal stories wasn’t necessary or all that interesting. They were by far the weak link, as I was much more intrigued by the broad struggles of the world presented in the film, and what the characters’ actions meant to human civilization as a whole.

Yes, Things to Come — a film made 77 years ago and less than 10 years after the introduction of sound to cinema — is such an ambitious film that it contains thoughtful social commentary; wild, imaginative fantasy; and groundbreaking production design. The fact that this isn’t the first film to do such things is a testament to our ability as humans to imagine, design and think our way around our limitations. But this also proves one of the film’s prescient thoughts, delivered to us by an elderly grandfather early in the film. He examines an “advanced” 1940s toy and scoffs, wondering if the children would be better off with the simple wooden toys of his era. Convenience and technology are nice when you’ve earned it, but they shouldn’t immediately overwrite the old ways.

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Block-Heads (1938)

Starring Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Patricia Ellis, Minna Gombell, Billy Gilbert, James Finlayson

Directed by John G. Blystone

Expectations: Not as treasured as Way Out West, but I remember loving this one as well in my youth.


For their next feature after Way Out West, Laurel and Hardy went contemporary. Block-Heads opens during World War I, as the tanks laboriously roll by and the soldiers march into certain death. Soon we focus down on a trench teeming with men, where Stan and Ollie prepare for war. But it’s not in the cards for Stan, as he is told decisively by his commanding officer to guard his post until told to do otherwise. Well, Ollie and the rest of the boys run out of the trench and Stan hangs back for the next twenty years. Yeah, he’s a block-head alright!

Block-Heads is an interestingly plotted film because unlike Way Out West which is pretty straightforward, Block-Heads tells a few different concurrent storylines and then has them all collide. In a way, it’s like the writers had a lot of leftover ideas and decided to throw them together, but that sounds like a unfair slight to a film that’s full of great gags and ideas. Anyway, what I’m getting at is that Block-Heads might start as a war-based comedy, but it quickly transitions to the home front, revealing itself to be more of a domestic, relationship comedy. Along the way to the domestic comedy, though, is a lot of “trying to get from point a to point b”, and that’s what makes up most of the runtime of Block-Heads.

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Way Out West (1937)

Starring Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Sharon Lynn, James Finlayson, Rosina Lawrence, Stanley Fields, Vivien Oakland, The Avalon Boys, Chill Wills

Directed by James W. Horne

Expectations: One of my most treasured films as a child. Let’s see how it holds up.


As expected, I still love this movie unconditionally. Growing up we didn’t have cable TV most of the time, so our small VHS collection was always getting played and re-played. Way Out West was one of the first tapes we owned and it quickly became one of the most watched as well, with good reason. Even though it was a colorized version, the power of the duo’s comedy shone through, and later when I knew it was originally black and white I’d turn down the color and watch it as intended. The film was released on April 16, 1937, just recently celebrating its 75th birthday, but not a shred of the humor or the charm has worn off of this gem. Clearly, there’s some nostalgia associated with the movie for me, so your mileage may vary if you’ve never seen it, but for me this is truly one of the best classic comedy films of all time.

Stan and Ollie play a couple of guys entrusted to bring a deed for a gold mine to a resident of Brushwood Gulch. Things go wrong in only ways that Laurel and Hardy can manage, and that’s where Way Out West is best. My favorite scene has always been the chase scene inside of James Finlayson’s bedroom, as Laurel, Hardy, Finlayson and Sharon Lynn all fight and scramble over each other to acquire the deed. It’s hilarious and still managed to have me in stitches even though I’ve seen it a multitude of times. There’s even a small bit of wirework in one small moment that raises the level of incredulity and hysterics to new heights.

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