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Monday, June 18, 2018

The Universal Vault Strikes Gold

Early 30's Obscurities Up From The Deep

Universal's Vault has just released a number of early 30's titles to DVD. Buying any of their product amounts to dice throw for equal chance you'll get something nice, or a pack of dogs. Quality may vary from fresh transfers (White Woman) to wretchedly outdated ones (Kitty). I'm pleased to report that this latest group, at least four I've seen, bats a thousand. These are for most part Paramount titles that haven't been accessible other than on bootleg discs, the films largely unknown because so few have had opportunity to see them. I won't argue for any as undiscovered classics, but all are curiosities worth a sit through short lengths (none over 75 minutes), and again --- the quality is excellent. Two feature Claudette Colbert, one has Carole Lombard and Miriam Hopkins, the trio falling in category of "pre-code" even if little happens to exploit greater license movies had before enforcement got tight. Just seeing them --- all for a first time to mine eyes at least --- was plenty fun and happy deliverance from fuzzy dupes-off-dupes the lot of so many vintage Paramounts. Vault releases tend to be a well-kept secret, word out through fan forums and no where else, it seems. Mine came from Amazon and got here fast. The dip included Honor Among Lovers, The Misleading Lady, Fast and Loose, and one from the 50's by Universal-International, Six Bridges To Cross. That last wasn't even mentioned by forums, it being stumbled across quite by chance at Amazon. Makes me wonder what else might be available that I'm not aware of.

Honor Among Lovers is a 1930 release directed by Dorothy Arzner. It was filmed at Paramount's Astoria plant, a veritable "Hollywood On The Hudson," per title of Richard Koszarski's outstanding history of New York-based filmmaking during the late silent and early talkie period. Box art for the Honor Among Lovers DVD indicates Pat O' Brien among the cast, but he's not in it. However, Monroe Owsley is. Fredric March in straightforward lead-man mode sports a mustache that looks clipped on, like what W.C. Fields wore in his silent features, and every bit as unappealing. March is a business tycoon on the make for secretary Claudette Colbert. She marries Owsley, that telegraphed early on as a big mistake. You could have stepped into the lobby for ten minutes of smokes and not missed much of this one. Moments are engaging because these players make them so. Charlie Ruggles is a raccoon-coat-clad tippler with Ginger Rogers as his birdbrain GF. Hopes for something unexpected to happen go unfulfilled, but there are roadhouses, posh apartments, and night clubs all circa 1930, that being enough (or should be) for viewers who gravitate to such antiquity.

Fast and Loose was Miriam Hopkins' first feature with sound, to which she brings the Georgia accent and playing that would single her out among peers. Hopkins had an offbeat quality. You never knew which way she'd twitch. Co-workers found her unpredictable, as in troublesome at times, but this actress can make an otherwise flat vehicle worth seeing, as here. Survival among players fresh to talkies was for the fittest. Few got much help from writing or direction, as everyone was treading water and desperate to stay above the surface. We see sample of that in young Charles Starrett, who actually swims into a first camera view, Fast and Loose also shot at Astoria, which would ordinarily limit movement, but variety is got this time via beach scenes done at Manhasset Bay, a plus for sound and location in early tandem. In distinct Fast and Loose support is Carole Lombard, shaded by Ilka Chase, who is frankly funnier in her part than Lombard would ever become. Watch this and marvel at how much Lombard improved in a next several years. Preston Sturges did some writing on Fast and Loose, Ilka Chase a seeming comic mouthpiece for him. The whole movie should have been about her adventures, rather than Hopkins or Lombard.

The Misleading Lady misled me for a first act that was pretty good, but then Edmund Lowe kidnaps Claudette Colbert (for making him out a fool in front of society friends) and then, heaven sustain us, in walks Stuart Erwin to do excruciating shtick to make me wonder how senses of humor could change so drastically since 1932. Lowe wouldn't get crowd approval today for chaining Claudette like a zoo animal, but what's that but wacky fun of then-films unplugged. To note with The Misleading Lady and Honor Among Lovers is how effective Colbert always was, even (perhaps especially) with weak material. Her line readings are never rote, each line getting a twist I'd not expect any other actress to lend. Colbert learned French first --- she grew up there --- but got the most of any actress from English phrasing and inflection. Look, and more so, listen, when watching her a next time.

Cast and Crew On Boston Location for Six Bridges To Cross

I suspected The Misleading Lady was based on a play and sure enough, it was (a "farce," in fact). Why did escaped lunatics amuse people so in the early 30's? A real odd duck of a forgotten programmer. The fourth and final of my Vault tour was Six Bridges To Cross, a U-I crime drama happily done on location in Boston "where it happened" (an armored car robbery), and here's a bonus: the disc is anamorphic 1.85 and looks fine. That last was welcome and unexpected. Six Bridges To Cross has also been a tough title to track down. Universal spent to make it major, Tony Curtis established by then with A's and George Nader a name in development. Too bad he had to fall on the Confidential sword meant for Rock Hudson, though Rock would return the kindness by remembering Nader in his will. Sal Mineo has his first feature part playing Tony Curtis as adolescent J.D. Street scenes are crowded, for real, and have conviction. Both Curtis and Nader are excellent. Six Bridges To Cross dispels conception of Universal-International as cheapie begetter. Too bad there are aren't more of theirs out there to rediscover.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

When I saw that candid still filming on location in Boston, I managed to identify that particular place because that site has not changed much in all of this years.

If you think that the treatment endured by Claudette Colbert in the hands of Edmund Lowe can be considered shocking by today standards, that is actually nothing. Paramount has done even worse at the same time. In LAS LUCES DE BUENOS AIRES, leading lady Sofía Bozán is singing a tango in a packed theater when a gaucho in balcony grabs a rope, flips it over grabbing her like a rebellious cow in a rodeo... just to bring her back to the estancia with the man she loves!

7:06 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

Did a search for Universal Vault on Amazon. A lot of stuff, including several films that were previously available as part of OOP sets (Warner Archive is also re-releasing some formerly bundled titles). Also among them is "Return of the Musketeers", the ill-starred follow-up to the two Richard Lester features.

Still hoping for the rest of the Jon Hall / Maria Montez / Sabu / Turhan Bey epics.

9:11 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I noticed the Universal Vault series includes the notorious Burton/Taylor fiasco "Boom!" Please watch it and review it, so I don't have to.

11:06 AM  

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