Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Film Reviews: Personal Property & One Heavenly Night

"Personal Property" *** (out of ****)

There seems to be a theme going on lately with the movies I've chosen to review. All of them deal with poor people marrying or trying to marry rich people. All have elements of class warfare. Am I turning into a Marxist? Maybe a Groucho Marx-ist.

"Personal Property" (1937) is yet another example of this kind of film. It stars Robert Taylor and Jean Harlow (in her second to last performance).

These kind of films were quite popular during the 1930s. America was facing hard economic times and these films offered an escape for audiences. They helped people laugh away their problems. On some level I suppose audiences could relate to the struggling characters trying to make ends meat. The idea of marrying for money wasn't so far fetched. Heck, lets not kid ourselves, people still do it today!

Robert Taylor stars as Raymond Dabney, who has recently been released from jail after serving a six month sentence. His crime was nothing too serious. It couldn't be. He's the hero of the movie, so the audience has to root for him. He bought a car, but, before he paid it off, sold it.

His family is in financial trouble. His father (E.E. Clive) and brother, Claude (Reginald Owen) run the family business; women's lingerie. Claude is engaged to Crystal Wetherby (Jean Harlow) whom he suspects is a millionaire. Her money of course will help keep the business going. They want to get Raymond out of the away, since they are afraid his prison term will scare off Crystal. So they want to buy him out of the family.

Without spoiling too much, Raymond meets Crystal, not knowing who she is, and simply finds her beautiful. Desperate to meet her he follows her home (today we call that stalking, or googling). He finds out she has no money. He however is mistaken for a bailiff, sent to collect payment by one of the many bill collectors she owes money to. He is told (by the police) he must stay in the house until she pays the bill.

Comedic tension raises though as Claude and his parents arrive to the house for a dinner party Crystal is throwing. What is Raymond to do? He pretends to be a butler to protect Crystal from having to explain that a bailiff is there to collect money.

I won't reveal anymore but quite frankly there are no big surprises. The film is very similar to "My Man Godfrey" (1936) but doesn't play out as nicely. "Godfrey" was a funnier movie and quite honestly, I preferred the performances in that movie over this one. Not to say this movie doesn't have a good cast, it does!

Jean Harlow is mostly known as a sex symbol of early talkies. And no doubt about it she was. But, Harlow, believe it or not, had a great gift for comedy. I would argue some of her best performances were in comedies. "Personal Property" isn't a great film and I don't think she gives a great comedic performance. The material simply doesn't allow her to really show her stuff. There is one good moment when she is rehearsing with Raymond, pretending to be each guest. The scene allows her to go into different accents and play various personalities. But, I don't think that was Harlow's strong point. Marion Davies could do that not Harlow. If you want to see Harlow in a funny comedy check out "Bombshell" (1933). It is one of her best movies. Also rent "Libeled Lady" (1936) and "Dinner At Eight" (1933).

I've written about Robert Taylor on here already. I reviewed two movies with him; "Remember?" (1939) and "Lucky Night" (1939). Both were comedies. Strangely I've never thought of Taylor as a comedic actor. Maybe that's because the first movie I ever saw him in was "Waterloo Bridge" (1940), which still remains my favorite movie with him. Recently when I was in London I saw the famous bridge and couldn't help but think of that movie.

Taylor I suppose is decent in the film. There really doesn't seem to be too much required of him other than just to stand there and look handsome. There's no physical comedy thrown his way or piercing one-liners to deliver.

The film was based on a play called "The Man in Possession" which was turned into a movie in 1931 starring Robert Montgomery (I have not seen this movie). Some suggest because of the production code "Personal Property" had to tone down a lot of the sexual innuendos which were in "Possession". Again I haven't seen that movie but in theory it makes sense. According to IMDB, Reginald Owen also appeared in that movie playing the same role.

Owen was a good character actor, usually playing the same kind of personality; the stuffy, wealthy Englishmen. Watch him in the Jack Benny comedy "Charley's Aunt" (1941) and one of my grandmother's favorite movies, "A Christmas Carol" (1938).

The film was directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Van Dyke was a very good studio director. He was nominated twice for "Best Director" Oscars for the films "The Thin Man" (1934) and "San Francisco" (1936), which just might be his best movies. You'll find his name on several MGM comedies and musicals from the 30s. He was known for his rapid shooting style. Usually never doing more than one take. Hence why the studio liked him. He always brought his movies in on time and under budget. Other films include "Manhattan Melodrama" (1934), this has become known as the film Dillinger saw before he was shot, but, having actually seen the movie, I must tell you it is a very good movie. You should see it. He also directed a Noel Coward adaptation of his play "Bitter Sweet" starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in 1940.

The script was by Hugh Mills and Hungarian writer Ernest Vajda. Vajda worked often with Ernst Lubitsch writing many of his early musicals; "The Love Parade" (1929) and "Monte Carlo" (1930). Those movies were very adult and playful. So it does seem odd "Personal Property" lacks the social edge those movies had.

"Personal Property" still is worth seeing for Harlow and Taylor, who do display some good chemistry, too bad the script wasn't funnier.

p.s. Robert Taylor's character is suppose to be English. Yet Taylor makes no attempt at all to speak with an English accent. Didn't anyone else notice?

"One Heavenly Night" *** (out of ****)

"One Heavenly Night" (1931) is yet another movie about class and money. Here though the movie is a musical set in Budapest.

Fritzi Vajos (Lilyan Tashman) is a cabaret singer in a Budapest cafe. She is the envy of all the men who enter and a hero to Lilli (Evelyn Laye). Fritizi is known for singing a song called "I Belong To Everyone". But the word "belong" really means something else. And Fritzi has a reputation for being a wild woman of the world. Too wild for Budapest in fact. She is exiled from the city.

But Fritzi won't leave. Her plan. Have Lilli pretend to be her and send her off to the country side and to the town Zuppa where she will be under the supervision of Count Mirko Tibor (John Boles). Accompanying Lilli will be a local cimbalom player, Otto (Leon Errol), who is in love with Lilli.

"One Heavenly Night" is kind of a "Prince & the Pauper" type story with a sexual moral twist. Good girls must always remain pure. Those that aren't will never be treated with respect. Men will always expect one thing from them and one thing only.

Quite frankly I can't figure out why the movie had to be set in Budapest. Though I realize the movie wasn't actually filmmed there, still the setting adds nothing to the story. Though I will admit it was because it was set there that I even decided to watch the movie.

Given that Laye and Boles sing as if they are opera stars, maybe the story should have taken place in Italy and become an American Italian opera. Besides the fact that Otto plays the cimbalom, there is nothing Hungarian about the movie. By the way, Otto is seen walking around with a large square box which is suppose to be his cimbalom. That is impossible. My father plays the cimbalom. It is the national Hungarian instrument. There is no way one person can carry that instrument. Especially the kind we see Otto play in the movie. It is a concert size cimbalom. Only the Incredible Hulk could carry it on its own.

The love story is predictable as is the moral behind it. I'm not a great fan of the stars either. I've never seen Evelyn Laye in anything before. I have seen John Boles in some movies. He was in "Frankenstein" (1931), "Stella Dallas" (1937) and another early musical, "Rio Rita" (1929) with the comedy team Wheeler and Woolsey.

Leon Errol is our comic relief. He has some nice moments where he is suppose to be drunk. He knocks over a lot of priceless art and has a heck of a time putting a stamp on a letter and trying to mail it. I could almost imagine the director and crew laughing hysterically at this stuff but today it comes off as dated. Too corny.

The film was directed by George Fitzmaurice. I have only seen one other movie directed by him, "The Son of the Sheik" (1926) with Rudolph Valentino. I have reviewed it already. The script was by Sidney Howard, best known for writing "Gone With the Wind" (1939). He was also behind "Dodsworth" (1936) another movie with a sexual moral. Only "Dodsworth" is a much more adult and mature film.

"One Heavenly Night" is a silly, light excursion. It is harmless entertainment that may please those who enjoy good old-fashion Hollywood entertainment. It is predictable and the comedy is dated still despite everything I had a good time watching it.