Monday, March 20, 2006

A Whale of a Tale

This morning, Turner Classic Movies ran an interesting lineup of antiquities: THE PHANTOM OF PARIS (1931), an MGM adaptation of one of Gaston Leroux's Chéri-Bibi novels, starring John Gilbert; Tod Browning's FAST WORKERS (1933), a light drama about construction workers caught in romantic rivalry, starring Robert Armstrong (not his biggest film of '33) and a miscast Gilbert; Browning's final film MIRACLES FOR SALE (1939), starring a young Robert Young; and James Whale's Fitzgeraldian whodunit REMEMBER LAST NIGHT? (1935), starring a younger Robert Young, Constance Cummings (the Pippa Scott of her day), Edward Arnold (the James Gandolfini of his day), and a sexily dressed Sally Eilers.

I don't usually permit myself to watch television in the daytime, but my breakfast happened to coincide with the showing of REMEMBER LAST NIGHT?, so I watched it as it was being broadcast. It's the story of a group of rich-and-pretty folks, permanently tight in the giddy days following the repeal of prohibition, who awaken in a fancy mansion the morning after a gay (in the old sense of the world) party to find the host dead in his bed, shot through the heart. Everyone was so smashed the night before, they can't remember the party much less the murder, so the police (in the stout personage of Edward Arnold and a nutty sidekick) arrive to investigate... but the pieces must ultimately be put together by the likeable Robert Young and Constance Cummings, who manage to do so while out-drinking and out-wisecracking Nick and Nora Charles. Or trying to.

It's a cute movie, with some Cracker Jack prizes for the auteurists (Robert Young parading around in his wife's fluffy dressing gown, the idle rich being mocked by the snotty working class asides of the cops and even Arthur Treacher's snooty butler, dialogue references to Dracula's Daughter, The Black Cat and the Bride of Frankenstein, and a hypnotism gadget that is only slightly less spectacular than all the crackling Kenneth Strickfaden devices that brought corpses to life in Whale's Frankenstein pictures), and jaw-dropping sets by Charles D. Hall that make the actors look like ants running around through a limited edition book with Lynd Ward endpapers. There is an entire wall in one room made up of cubed glass, which looks as though it was actually left over from Edgar Ulmer's THE BLACK CAT, made the year before. The sets and the costumes actually dominate the film to such a degree that I found myself watching the backgrounds more than the foregrounds, and laughing especially hard when Young and Cummings exclaimed "What a beautiful room!" when they happened to find themselves in a dingy, ugly cellar lined wall-to-wall with untapped liquor bottles.

It's been awhile since TCM has shown some of these, and I'm grateful. Thanks to this morning's schedule, there are about five old Beta tapes in my attic that I can now throw out.

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