Whoever’s in charge of organizing the Warner Archives made-on-demand DVD-R’s has been making intelligent decisions lately in combining titles for double features and sets. Remakes and near-remakes are being packaged together, as are miscellaneous minor titles featuring the same stars. It makes sense that if someone is interested in one of the pictures, they’d be interested in the other, thus increasing the attraction of the package.
One perfectly sensible combo is Walter Pidgeon Double Feature, pairing Society Lawyer and Stronger Than Desire. In some ways, they’re the same movie. Both are MGM products from 1939. Both star Pidgeon before he became a box-office star as a stolid leading man to Greer Garson. In both movies, he plays an upper-class Manhattan lawyer. In both movies, his leading lady is Virginia Bruce, one of those pretty troupers who plugged away in minor items of the ‘30s and ‘40s without making much dent in the public memory. (Check her out in The Invisible Woman and as Kim Novak’s mom in Strangers When We Meet.)
The first title is a fast-moving, easy-going mystery in which Pidgeon defends a friend accused of killing his ex-girlfriend on the balcony of a ritzy party. Everyone heard the shot and rushed outside to find the sap holding the gun. This movie has not one but two Italian stereotype gangsters, one evil and one lovable. The evil one is scarred and scowling Eduardo Ciannelli. He’s up to no good, which makes the whole story not too brain-busting as a mystery.
Walter Pidgeon Double Feature
Walter Pidgeon, Virginia Bruce
(US DVD: 18 Jan 2011)
The teddy bear is round and beaming Leo Carillo, who’s grateful to Pidgeon’s character for getting him off a murder rap and constantly calls him “Sweethearts”. “The more you insult me, the more I like it!” he chortles. More people probably know Carillo today as a California state park activist (he was an active conservationist), but in his time he was known as a comic actor in Mexican and Italian roles (and sometimes French, or Greek, or whatever), most widely seen as the sidekick of the Cisco Kid in movies and on TV.
There’s a nicely adult undertone to the sequence where Bruce stays overnight in Pidgeon’s swanky pad and they feel confused over the need to explain or not explain her presence when Pidgeon’s old girlfriend shows up. There’s a mixing of motives that works well. By the way, the ex-girlfriend is a more likeable character than in the pre-Code gem Penthouse (1933), of which this is a remake. That film, with Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy, had franker references to what she expected to happen overnight. That kind of talk might have been too much for the remake, but Bruce’s calm acceptance and lack of remark is also quietly effective. (Penthouse is also available from Warner Archives.)
The ending implies that Pigeon and Bruce are going to get married and go to Europe with his comic British manservant, and viewers who walk in on Stronger Than Desire may think they’ve discovered the sequel, except that everyone has different names and the actor who plays the innocent schmuck in the first film (Lee Bowman) is the oily victim in the second.
The new film is a remake of another Myrna Loy film, Evelyn Prentice (1934) with William Powell. (It can be found in the DVD box Myrna Loy and William Powell Collection.) That’s more of a woman’s film focusing on the dilemma of a wife who shoots her blackmailer while her lawyer-hubby ends up defending another woman accused of the crime. As a Powell/Loy film, it’s clearly minor, but that hardly prevents it from being enjoyable nonsense.
It’s still enjoyable in the remake. The first, soap-opera half of the story emphasizes all the ladies’ chic hats and the snazzy decor of the house furnished with servants, and the last half is the suspense of the criminal case, which has such fine scenes as the questioning of a witness who swears she’d recognize the mystery lady again, and of course the impossible courtroom wrap-up. They’re all still wearing crazy hats.
So although it makes sense for these Pidgeon remakes of Loy films to be paired, it would also make sense to pair the two Loy originals, or to pair each original with its remake, or maybe all four films together. Since they’re all available, one can stage a Loy/Pidgeon remake lollapalooza in one’s living room. Or one can spend one’s time on better movies, because these remakes are, after all, forgettable trifles.
Signature Collection: Warren William
Signature Collection: Warren William gathers three films of this almost-forgotten ‘30s leading man who was imported to Hollywood from Broadway for the talkies. He often played detectives, including Perry Mason, Philo Vance, and the Lone Wolf. Had he been working for MGM instead of Warner Brothers, he could easily have made the two Pidgeon movies reviewed above. He starred in early Bette Davis vehicles as well as the classic women’s films Imitation of Life and Madame X. He also made the remarkable Skyscraper Souls, which is better than anything on this DVD set but isn’t available yet.
The title Times Square Playboy (1936) doesn’t have much to do with anything except to summarize William’s persona in many films. There was something dashing about him, although he was already older, a roué with a touch of grey. He could be elegant but as someone who had pulled himself up with street smarts. Here he’s upstaged by a pair of reliable character actors, Gene and Kathleen Lockhart. They’re the parents of June Lockhart—if you’re saying “Who?” you’ll just have to look it up.
Signature Collection: Warren William
William C. McGann/Robert Florey/Michael Curtiz
Warren William, Lil Dagover, Walter Huston
(US DVD: 18 Jan 2011)
This may be the closest Gene ever got to a starring role. He dominates the screen and makes everything happen as a hick from the sticks who’s William’s best man at the upcoming wedding, and the whole thing takes place in 24 hours of misunderstandings. The moral is that everyone can be pigheaded and prejudiced, both the “Main Street mind” of Lockhart (a reference to Sinclair Lewis’ novel) and the “Wall Street mind” of the city slickers whom he stupidly insults. From a play by George M. Cohan, it’s all snappy talk, and the Lockharts are much more interesting than anyone else. For good reason, they convince as a couple who’ve been stuck with each other for years.
Don’t Bet on Blondes (1935) casts William as a successful bookie who goes straight and starts selling wacky insurance policies in emulation of Lloyd’s of London. When a typically rotund, julep-sipping Kentucky colonel (Guy Kibbee) takes out a policy to insure his famous actress-daughter won’t get married for three years while he finishes his book proving that the South didn’t lose the Civil War, everyone in the audience and even in the theatre across the street must know exactly what’s going to happen by the end of the movie. By the way, the daughter isn’t even blonde, so this title makes no particular sense either.
Once again, what we have is a fast Warner Brothers programmer full of snappy, slangy lingo, always hep to speech patterns of different classes. As played by a host of supporting characters such as William Gargan and Hobart Cavanaugh (and who plays the heroine’s five-minute fiancé but young Errol Flynn), we have a pleasantly empty, very professional diversion directed by Robert Florey, a B director of some reputation who later moved successfully into TV.
Times Square Playboy
The third film in the set is the earliest, The Woman from Monte Carlo (1931). In The Great Movie Stars, David Shipman calls it “the first Hollywood vehicle for Lil Dagover (only it was a hearse and she returned to Germany)”. She’s fine in the manner of the day, striking plucked-eyebrow poses and delivering her lines clearly and naturally enough, although she often lapses into German because her character’s from Vienna.
There’s not much she can do with this role of a French Navy captain’s compromised wife in an absurd situation where she’s stuck on board a torpedoed ship in possession of evidence that will clear her husband’s name while ruining her marriage at the start of the Great War. It’s based on a melodramatic French play about honor and such. The ending, which is technically unhappy without being tragic, is the kind of thing more common in pre-Code films than later, when things would probably have been patched up better.
There’s nothing wrong with the production values on this early talkie. Ernest Haller’s camera glides among the passages and stairwells of the ship (sets designed by Anton Grot, who specialized in the big and ominous). Master director Michael Curtiz is already playing with his beloved shadow effects in an early scene where the scoundrel casts his shadow against a bulkhead to announce his sinister presence. Films of this date didn’t have background music and we don’t miss it. The ending has a very interesting, spinning optical effect for Dagover’s psychology and the transition to the last scene.
William has a supporting role. The show belongs to Dagover and Walter Huston, one of those actors who seemingly never gave a performance that wasn’t totally there. He’s a stern but likeable captain who doesn’t have time to express his feelings for his wife but expresses them anyway, and he’s never less than believable in a story that’s never quite believable. When he discusses the fact that he’s just over twice his wife’s age, this perhaps unwittingly echoes the circumstances of Dagover’s own early marriage to an established actor 25 years older, so she may have had no trouble identifying with her character.
Don’t Bet on Blondes
Dagover was a major star and an interesting actress. Most of her career was in Germany, including classic silents like The Cabinet of Caligari, several Fritz Lang films, and the wonderful Hungarian Rhapsody. The same year as her single Hollywood film, she made a classic German musical, The Congress Dances. She stayed in the German industry during Hitler and outlasted it, appearing in postwar films into the ‘70s.
As Dagover’s only Hollywood film, who knows whether it would have attracted enough attention among connosseurs of classics, even with Huston and director Curtiz? As part of a set with two other films starring William, it seems that much more worth a look. At least that’s what Warner Archives hopes, and it’s a good idea even though William made better films. Perhaps it should have been called “The Warren William Trivial Trio”, but that hasn’t quite got the same ring.
Walter Pidgeon Double Feature