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Alan Hale

Silents Please: Lois Weber restored and ‘The Covered Wagon’ on Blu-ray

Shoes (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Dumb Girl of Portici (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Covered Wagon (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)

Milestone Films

Lois Weber holds a place in film history as the first major woman film director in Hollywood. What’s often forgotten in that honor is the talent that gave her a successful 25 year making films for the major studios. She took on serious issues through her dramas, putting a face to the social problems she addressed, and brought nuance and complexity to her stories of struggle and hardship in modern American life in the 1910s. She brought a sophistication to movies in the era when movies grew up and though she shares screen credit with her husband, Phillip Smalley, film historians agree that Weber was the defining creative force. Weber has been overlooked in film histories in part because so many of her films have been lost and her surviving films have not been widely available. The Milestone Films release of the restoration of Shoes (1916) and The Dumb Girl of Portici(1916) should help restore her place as one of the most important and influential filmmakers—male or female—of her day.

Shoes (1916) is one of her best films, a social drama that humanizes the plight of poverty through the story of an underpaid shopgirl supporting her entire family on her wages and too poor to replace the ratty shoes that are literally falling apart on her feet. The plot is simple when reduced to its essentials—she gives into the advances of a cad in exchange for a new pair of shoes—but the meticulous presentation of her life and the nuanced performance of actress Mary MacLaren give the film a tremendous power, and Weber frames the shoes as vivid metaphors for the poverty of working class women.

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“That’s the kind of hairpin I am”: ‘Gentleman Jim’ and ‘The Strawberry Blonde’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

In Gentleman Jim a basic premise of the humor is that a good face-to-face brawl is one of the things that make life worth living. Here the physical and the sensual are a good deal less destructive than in White Heat and a good deal more pervasive than in Me and My Gal and The Bowery. Seen alongside The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, this movie’s celebration of turn-of-the-century urban vigor establishes it as a vision, imaginary or otherwise, of a time when personal wholeness and physical joy were much more accessible and more fully communal. But the conflict between eros and civilization turns up again, largely in the form of a refined young lady, Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith), who watches “Gentleman Jim” (Errol Flynn) performing on a theatre stage and wonders aloud why anyone would pay good money to see this guy—a bankteller turned boxer—as an actor. The question is a bit of an in-joke and the answer, of course, lies in Flynn himself: he may or may not be much of an actor, but he has great physical appeal. Vicki Ware and Jim Corbett are at odds through much of the film, but their sexual antagonism doesn’t boil over into romance until her hitherto-verbal belligerence begins to assume tones that are more physical and less uninhibited. Up to that point, their relationship seems a function of their differing responses to Vicki’s remark that “After all, we all started out in the same wooden washtub.” She means this only in a snootily abstract way, as an affirmation of democratic principle, but he takes it in a wholly physical sense, as an unbuttoned acceptance of skin-to-skin pleasures.

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Boys at Work: ‘They Drive by Night’ and ‘Manpower’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

They Drive by Night and Manpower gave Walsh some contact with another Warners specialty, the workingman picture. Both films tell us something about the conditions under which their respective kinds of work, commercial trucking and powerline repair, are conducted. Walsh, characteristically, puts greater emphasis on comedy than on any social problems that might arise—particularly in Manpower, where the nature of the script leaves him no choice.

They Drive by Night is a likeable film that doesn’t seem too certain where it’s going. Initial focus is on two fiercely independent truckers, Joe Fabrini (George Raft) and his brother Paul (Humphrey Bogart); but a feisty waitress (Ann Sheridan), Paul’s worried wife (Gale Page), a driver-turned-executive (Alan Hale) and his treacherous wife (Ida Lupino) give the film several kinds of “romantic interest” and eventually lead it off the highways and into various offices and a courtroom. Otis Ferguson suggested that the film’s errant plotting may have derived in part from a failure of nerve in adapting a socially conscious novel: “At least half of the film was ‘suggested’ by the Bezzerides novel Long Haul, and in this I wish they had been more suggestible, for the trucking stuff is very good and could have not only made the whole picture but made it better.” The first half of the film crackles with a sense of the risks the drivers take, but the second gravitates toward conventional melodrama with no special point or effect. (An earlier, non-Walsh Warners film, Bordertown [1935], seems to have been the source for this section.)

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