James Whale followed up his iconic horror classic Frankenstein (1931) with the strange, sly, and sardonic The Old Dark House (1932), part haunted house terror and part spoof executed with baroque style.
Boris Karloff (fresh from his star-making turn in Frankenstein) takes top billing in the supporting role of Morgan, the scarred, mute butler with a penchant for drink and a vicious mean streak, but the film is really an ensemble piece. Melvin Douglas is the wisecracking romantic lead caught in a raging thunderstorm in the Welsh mountains with bickering couple and traveling companions Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart. They take refuge in the creepy old manor of the title, lorded over by the gloriously flamboyant Ernest Thesiger and his dotty, fanatical sister Eva Moore, when a landslide wipes out the goat-trail of a mountain road, and are later joined by more stranded passengers: a hearty Charles Laughton, whose Lancashire working class accent and blunt manners sets him apart from the social graces of his companions, and his “friend” Lillian Bond, a chorus girl with a chirpy sunniness in the gloomy situation.
[Written for the National Society of Film Critics anthology The A List (2006)]
In 1931, the director Robert Florey lived in a Los Angeles apartment with a view of a Dutch-style bakery and its logo, a windmill complete with turning vanes. Florey had just been assigned by Carl Laemmle Jr. to direct a production of Frankenstein for Universal, and as he mused on a possible look for the film, he found himself considering a windmill as a key location – perhaps the site of the scientist’s secret laboratory. As it happened, it would be James Whale, not Florey, who directed Frankenstein, and Henry Frankenstein would set up shop in “an abandoned watchtower.” But that windmill got lodged in the collective brain of the filmmaking team (also in one line of dialogue absentmindedly retained from an early script draft), and finally made it on screen as an opportunistic but aptly crazed-Gothic setting for the film’s fiery climax.
The 1936 production of Show Boat is the second version of the story based on Edna Ferber’s novel (the 1929 version was in fact shot as a silent adaptation of the original novel and hastily reworked to include some of the show’s songs as a part-talkie release) and still the best. Irene Dunne, who had been discovered by Hollywood talent agents while performing in a road show version of the stage musical, returns to the role of Magnolia, the dreamy daughter of Cap’n Andy (Charles Winninger), the captain and proprietor of the floating paddlewheel playhouse. She plays out her romantic fantasies in real life when she falls for riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones) and, after a flirtation by duet, she takes the stage with him as her leading man, against the wishes of a mother who wants to keep her far away from the “wicked stage” of show business. Co-star Helen Morgan (in her final film role) reprises her role in the original Broadway production and Paul Robeson reprises the part he created in the London version, which gives the film documentary gravity as well as dramatic power. Dunne, with her trilling laugh and easy charm, is wonderful as the earnest Magnolia and Jones, most famous as the bland romantic lead of a couple of Marx Brothers comedies, shows more sand and strength in the role of the romantic gambler than in any other of his film performances, but Robeson and Morgan are transcendent.
Magnolia’s story is one of romantic dreams soured by the reality of a flawed man: Gaylord, who coaxes her off the stage and drags her along his itinerant life as a travelling gambler, starting out in high living splendor and then sinking into poverty and neglect. You could say that the song “Can Help Loving that Man” captures the theme of the whole show: love doesn’t necessarily conquer all but that doesn’t stop women from falling in love with unreliable men (or, in the case of the welcoming and warm Cap’n Andy, a sour, unforgiving wife). It’s played out as triumphant drama, comic lament, and tragedy, the latter in the supporting story of the show’s original star player Julie (Morgan), who is forced off the stage and out of the company by the local authorities after they are informed that she is part negro. The legal measure is “more than a drop” of Negro blood and Julie’s husband philandering husband uses the letter of the law to save her from the mob in a moving act of devotion. It is the last we see of him. Unreliable at the best of times, he finally abandons Julie, who ultimately drifts back into Magnolia’s story for a moving sacrifice.
Jerry Lewis cited director Frank Tashlin as his mentor when he finally stepped behind the camera. You can see what he brought to the Lewis persona in Rock-a-Bye Baby (Olive), Tashlin’s third film with Lewis, but his first with Lewis as a solo act.
Ostensibly a reworking of Preston Sturges’ great 1944 comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, writer/director Tashlin spins an entirely new story from the premise. Lewis is likable small town goof Clayton Poole, whose unrequited love for local girl turned Hollywood superstar Carla Naples (Marilyn Maxwell) makes him the perfect secret babysitter when she discovers that she’s pregnant just before taking her role in a Hollywood costume epic. Like its inspiration, the film insists that she’s married (she just can’t prove it), but then it exiles her to focus on Lewis as a doting guardian of three orphaned girls, with a little help from the babies’ grandfather (Salvatore Baccaloni, playing the hot-tempered yet sentimental Italian immigrant father of two independent daughters) and young aunt Sandra (Connie Stevens in her first major role), a lively all-American girl with a hopeless crush on Lewis’ goofy child-man.
Tashlin, an animator before he turned to live action filmmaking, was all about the gag and helped define Lewis as a walking cartoon, the rubberface spastic adolescent in a grown-up body. And yes, he is a walking disaster, but here he’s also oddly sweet as he watches over triplets. Sure, they’re mostly props, but they also become a kind of audience for performances he plays directly to them, child-man to infant, and in these sequences Lewis starts to take over. Where Tashlin tends to unleash a succession of one-off gags, Lewis riffs and builds on them, such as a scene of Clayton in a cloud of baby powder. The jokes themselves aren’t always as funny as Tashlin’s sight gags, but they follow one from another more organically and Lewis plays them like a sustained series of variations that build to an actual narrative conclusion. Tashlin’s hand is more evident in his pop-culture lampoons: Lewis as an wild-eyed rock and roll singer with no actual talent beyond energetic shouting and gesticulating, Marilyn Maxwell’s Egyptian costume epic transformed into a silly musical with a cheesy nightclub number. (For a film not considered a musical, there are plenty of musical numbers sprinkled through the film, some serious, some straight-out spoofs.)