Tuesday, April 30, 2013

April Quick Picks and Pans – 30s Edition

The Clairvoyant (1935) Claude Rains stars in this low-key British thriller as Maximus, a stage performer who runs a successful, albeit phony psychic act, along with his wife Rene, played by Fay Wray.  Things suddenly take a strange turn when he discovers he has the power to make true prophecies (he foretells a train collision and the winner of a horse race).  Maximus’ success is short-lived, however, when he predicts a massive cave-in at an underground tunnel project, and he’s subsequently blamed for the ensuing loss of life, and placed on trial for triggering the panic that “causes” the incident.  One minor quibble is that the filmmakers seem to pull their punches, opting for a tacked-on happy ending, rather than the tragic conclusion suggested by the plot’s trajectory.  Rains is great in his role, conflicted between the love of his wife and the desire to hone his newly uncovered talent.  The Clairvoyant is a moody, nicely acted little gem that’s worth seeking out.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Mark of the Vampire (1935) Director Tod Browning’s stylish, silly mystery/horror flick is a muddled, but eminently watchable mess.  Originally titled Vampires Over Prague, it’s a virtual remake of Browning’s earlier (and famously lost) silent film, London After Midnight, with Bela Lugosi in the role previously occupied by Lon Chaney.  The story concerns police inspector Neumann’s (Lionel Atwill) investigation of a series of mysterious deaths, and a plot to catch a killer who leaves his victims’ bodies drained of blood. Vampires are suspected to be the cause; or are they?

Mark of the Vampire was originally screened for preview audiences at 80 minutes, but its final cut was a lean 60 minutes.  While it’s probably one of the lesser Browning films, it’s still worthwhile for the atmospheric sets and fun performances.  Carroll Borland is entrancing, in a mute role, as Lugosi’s shadowy companion Luna.  Her distinctive pallid, moribund appearance prefigures the Goth movement by several decades, and has often been credited as the inspiration for Charles Addams’ character Morticia.  Check it out.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Night Nurse (1931) Barbara Stanwyck stars in this curiosity from the Pre-Code era as the plucky Lora Hart.  Night Nurse depicts a bygone age, when just a strong constitution and can-do attitude, in lieu of a formal education, was sufficient to become a nurse.  In her first assignment, nurse Hart is placed in charge of two sickly young children in a large manor.  It’s surprising to see Clark Gable, who’s usually associated with protagonist roles, playing the bad guy – a chauffeur suspected of conspiring to starve the children.  Hart finds an unlikely ally in a charismatic bootlegger, played by Ben Lyon.  While the situations never seem quite believable, it’s still an enjoyable viewing experience, since we’re never sure what’s going to happen next.  While I would never deign to reveal the film’s ending, suffice it to say the final scene could only have occurred before the restrictions of the Hays Code were enforced.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Happiness (aka: Schastye) (1935) In Russia, comedy laughs at you!  I think there’s a good reason why Soviet cinema wasn’t known for its raucous slapstick farces.  Writer/director Aleksandr Medvedkin’s bleak, dismal silent comedy proves that he’s no Chaplin.  While it’s easy to feel pathos for the protagonist, it’s much harder to find anything to laugh about.  The story follows sad sack peasant farmer Khmyr (Pyotr Zinovyev) as he moves from one crushing tragedy to the next, enduring a string of hardships that would have made Stalin proud.  To its credit, there are a few decent gags, with a tractor running in circles, various townspeople collecting all of Khymr’s earnings from a harvest, and a tiny house literally walking away, carried by the feet of several thieves.  I suppose the central message, the triumph of the proletariat over tsarist Russia (or something like that) is intended to be uplifting, but the comedic elements just appear forced.  Maybe you have to be Russian to truly appreciate it. 

Rating: ** ½.  Available on Netflix Streaming


  1. Sweetness. I'm glad you finally saw Night Nurse. Clark Gable as a bad guy was sort of an odd thing. I will look for The Clairvoyant soon. Great post

  2. Thanks for dropping by, Jason! The Clairvoyant was one of April's big discoveries for me. Night Nurse was definitely worth seeing, as well.