Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Men of the Thirties: 1932-33


The Nominees Were...Leslie Howard - Berkeley Square
Charles Laughton - The Private Life of Henry VIII
Paul Muni - I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

The Winner Was...

Charles Laughton - The Private Life of Henry VIII

My Ratings (in order of preference):-

***** Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

As an unwilling rebel against a questionable and heavily-criticised judicial system, Paul Muni is a near-revelation in Mervyn LeRoy's I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Muni gives his wronged man the kind of naive, grounded appeal that heroes always need; that instinctive, direct way of looking at the world, and a degree of intolerance for people and situations that complicate that notion. He convincingly dissects his new situation, initially making James a petulant passenger in the chain gang before a sturdy realisation that to conquer it he must take charge. Fugitive is not as scathing as one would think: James' entry into jail is the primary force in his eventual achievements outside of it, and while the film ploughs on with such capable finesse and ease of storytelling Muni seems to be the perfect central element to its poltiical motivations, a product of his own victimisation.


Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Surely there isn't a more definitive screen version of Henry VIII than this 1933 tour-de-force? As well as looking remarkably like the man himself Laughton chews on drumsticks and spits orders with the self-righteous bravura of a man consumed by inherent, ingrained arrogance, and raucously chomps at the bit when surveying the womenfolk too. My problems with the film stem from its rushed desire to pack every juicy bit of history into ninety very stagy minutes, and Laughton himself doesn't really help in this regard. His mannered approach occasionally feels cartoonish, and his effective moments usually come in the form of comedy. A good performance but nothing exceptional.


Leslie Howard in Berkeley Square (1933)

The toe-in-the-water exploration of the absurd Berkeley Square requires Leslie Howard to be: a) besotted with the idea of his own ancestry, b) besotted with a member of his own ancestry, and c) infuriated with both a and b. Infuriation is something Leslie Howard can only demonstrate with the snarl of a terrier puppy, and even the stuffiness of the film's setting and subject cannot make his efforts feel beyond first base. I am generally a Leslie fan but he feels as if he's acting in a glass box here, understandably unsure of his film's bizarre intentions but fatally unable to eek out any belief for his character's fascinations or sympathy for the predicament he gets himself into.

The Snubbed


Warner Baxter in 42nd Street (1933)

The academy don't really like men in musicals. William Powell in The Great Ziegfeld (not exactly a "musical" but about musical theatre) similarly found himself on the wrong side of a snub, and that was for a film about HIM. 42nd Street is also more concerned with women and theatricality than the man who must hold it all together, Warner Baxter. Baxter isn't wonderful but he does draw attention to the frantic, fragile nature of showbusiness and the line between success and failure, and responds to each mini-disaster with the level of comic resignation that takes envy and shoves it down your throat.


Nils Asther in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

This beastly pet-figure of reluctant lust for heroine Barbara Stanwyck would later be modestly improved upon by Yul Brynner in Walter Lang's The King and I. Asther's stoney stern glare (as if he were telling off a small child), and satisfyingly smug closed-grin seem to be the faces of choice, and as such he loops them throughout The Bitter Tea, making his General Yen somebody fundamentally formidable, but never really expanding upon the barbarism that tarnishes his acceptability. A late scene shows promise but in general he's one of the main reasons why the film doesn't work.

No comments: