The Watch List For 5/21/13
THE BLACK BIRD (1926) --- My standing rule re Chaney reads thus: All footage with him is of interest, even scraps off the floor. Does any personality other than senior Lon command rapt attention for mere fragments when they're discovered? I'm reminded of bits that Kevin Brownlow put into his LC documentary to which there was keen reaction --- a reel from otherwise missing Thunder, a snippet of Chaney on a dance floor --- whatever exists of him is precious. Talk all we please about weakness of his MGM features, not exempting ones directed by legend Tod Browning, it's still Chaney, and he compels whatever aridness of surroundings. The Black Bird is actually one of the better ones. Lon performs again in dual capacity, so there's two flavors of bizarre, one face a familiar crook guise, the other a twisted twin with deformity to take breath away from even Chaney-goers who'd seen his 999 other faces.
Turns out both are the same Chaney of course, his transforms back and forth a chance to observe Jekyll-Hyding on LC's part that make us regret he never played that role. Merciful heavens --- did Lon throw an arm and leg out of joint to enact his cripple here? Audiences might have thought so for body gymnastic done head-to-toe before us --- show me animal or vegetable that could enact this so chillingly. The story is pulpy and flat ludicrous at times, but who complains when it's genuine oddity of Browning in author plus director mode? He must have lived at least partial of this stuff in medicine show days when god knows what routinely went on. We imagine guys like Tod and Lon knew life at least somewhat as folks now, though I'd say from reading bios --- not. It's peculiarity of backstage beginnings that make what they do on and behind cameras so utterly compelling. Chaney and Browning represent a silent other-world not to be approached by movies, or moviegoers, again.
36 HOURS TO KILL (1936) --- G-Man Brian Donlevy poses as newshound to get goods on public enemy Douglas Fowley. Gloria Stuart's along for the train ride, on which Stepin' Fetchit is a slow-wit porter. All aboard, then, for a competent hour long (give or take) Fox B, recently out from their On-Demand program (quality excellent). 36 Hours is half set on rails, this occurring to me as perfect alibi for cramped sets and budget reigned tight. Donlevy in (comparative) youth was a livelier wire than later heavies and Professor Quatermass he did, being an FBI man here, though not designated as such. Did the Bureau nix Fox's use of their ID? A kind of story writers must have dreamed up Thursday afternoon in order to collect paychecks on Friday, but tol'able because of good people that play it. Having such back in circulation is a kick, for when was the last time TV outlets showed 36 Hours To Kill?
BULLDOZING THE BULL (1938) --- What a high wire Popeye walked, and for such a run of first-quality cartoons from his intro in 1933 till
THE WAGONS ROLL AT NIGHT (1941) --- Humphrey Bogart was by now a star, just not a romantic star, so still did loser leads where someone else got the girl and he'd die for a finish. Next-up The Maltese Falcon would begin rescue from all that, and no more would Bogart be shoehorned into pics his kind of persona had little/no business in, like westerns, cornpone musicals, even horror. Here he is at circus management, wrangling lions and tamers of same, Wagons a remake of Kid Galahad wherein E.G. Robinson was more believably the guy multiple women spurn. When a story was good, Warners kept it coming, with sometimes mere seasons between update. Sweet-sixteen Joan Leslie does intense emoting with Bogie, gets slapped by him ... I'll have to dig up interviews where she tells what that was like. Jungle cats take the place of Galahad's gangland menace, Eddie Albert assuming the naïf part done first by Wayne Morris. Mauling scenes we demand of such pics are lovingly rendered, Bogie's double getting a face-full of claw. Wagons was of a sort that made the star grouse loudest, but it's efficient by marginal-A ways and does neither he nor good support players discredit. Warner Archives' remastered DVD is fine.
UPDATE: BIRTH BACK TO NORTH CAROLINA --- Thanks to generous offices of Mike Cline, proprietor of the outstanding Then Playing site, we have another sampling of Birth Of A Nation as an ongoing theatre attraction. In this instance, it's