Flick Clique: April 26 – May 2
Exclusive Story (1936). A DVD that I picked from the screener pool at DVD Talk. I was excited to see this one because a) we rarely get Warner Archive discs in the pool and b) vintage movies are especially hard there. Exclusive Story is an efficiently produced little b-drama from MGM starring dapper Franchot Tone as a lawyer who comes to the aid of a pretty lady (the gorgeous Madge Evans) whose father’s business is being hounded by criminals running an underground numbers game. This film packs a lot of action/story into under 75 minutes in an absorbing (if overly complex) and thoroughly fun romp. When the Madge Evans character seeks help at the local newspaper, it prompts a lot of salty dialogue from the reporter who is trying to seek a scoop on the criminal (played with a hammy menace by Joseph Calleia). Although Tone contributes a lot, the main male lead is really Stuart Irwin as the reporter – it’s interesting to see him in a complex, non-comic role as a decent family man who sincerely wants to help Evans and not exploit her situation. The story mixes gangster drama and domestic theatrics, along with an exciting sequence set aboard a cruise liner set afire with passengers desperately trying to escape. Although the film on the whole is somewhat routine, I found it a brisk example of studio-craft and basically worthwhile (having never seen it on TCM, this one is completely new to me).
Mantrap (1926). The other feature film on my spiffy Treasures 5: The West 1898-1938 DVD set is this recently refurbished Clara Bow comedy in which she plays a flirty city gal who falls for an older country bumpkin. Her Alverna impulsively marries dim but earnest shopkeeper Joe (Ernest Torrance) and moves to the lakeside town of Mantrap, Canada (actually California’s Lake Arrowhead). Flapper Alverna becomes perfectly bored with country life until her prospects change when lawyer Ralph Prescott (Percy Marmont) comes to town on vacation. Smoothly directed and shot by Victor Fleming and cinematographer James Wong Howe, this lightweight fluff is mostly carried by Clara and her charms. If you ever wondered why she was called “The It Girl,” get a load of her coquettish, casually sexy performance here and wonder no longer (no surprise that Bow regarded this as the best of her star vehicles). She makes up for the routine story and the fact that other two actors are rather dull – and homely. This film contains that one famous clip of Bow where she winks and does a little “c’mere” motion with her index finger.
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939). Last of the slight yet enjoyable Warner Bros. series of b-movies starring cute ‘n perky Bonita Granville as the iconic teen detective. I believe Hidden Staircase was the only one of the four to be based on one of the books, although apparently very loosely. The story concerns a pair of spinsters, neighbors in Nancy’s little town, living in an old house who are subject to a will that stipulates one of them must stay in the house every night for 20 years to inherit it (yes, this is the stuff that b-movies run on!). People want the property to build a racetrack on, however, so the sisters are subjected to weird stuff happening in the house – including the murder of their chauffeur, a deed which implicates them in the killing. Nancy knows better, so she enlists the help of her skeptical yet game boyfriend Ted (Frankie Thomas) to investigate the mysterious old house. These are silly but film flicks, decently produced and fast paced. It’s kind of amazing, the ballsy stuff that Nancy does in these flicks – lying to the authorities, venturing into weird places alone, etc. I wonder if young girls got into trouble trying to emulate what she did in these films? The Bonita Granville Nancys are all pretty interchangeable; Hidden Staircase ranks as slightly fizzier and more enjoyable than the others.
Showgirls (1996). All-time trash classic? Although I’ve had this one in my queue for a while, we shuttled it to the top after Christopher read the autobiography of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. Whatta trip! This “film” is every bit as lousy as I’ve heard, but it’s also strangely watchable and enjoyable in a way that many bad (boring) films never achieve. That might be due to the direction of Paul Verhoeven, who seems clued in to the script’s ridiculousness and amplifies the campy, gaudy awfulness of it all to a huge, eyeball-straining degree. Poorly cast Elizabeth Berkley plays Nomi, an ambitious if short-fused dancer who hitches her way to Vegas and eventually (after a series of hilarious mishaps) scores a job as a stripper. That oughta be enough to satisfy any burger- and tacky-nails-lovin’ gal, but instead she sets her sights on the very top – being a showgirl at a big time casino! Thanks to help from sleazy impersario Kyle MacLachlan and lesbian-leaning diva Gina Gershon, she makes it to the chorus in a show called “Goddess” – but can she unseat the show’s vain star? Unintentional hilarity ensues, but it’s also scary how everybody in this movie is either predatory, sleazy or incredibly stupid. In the dimwits’ corner is Berkely’s Nomi, who is utterly anti-sexy and untalented despite what other characters say. She’s also a bitter pill, but it must be a tribute to the woman’s talent (?) that I found myself rooting for her in the end. This despite loads of trashy sets, clothing and food (really, what is it with all the junk food?) and choreography that seemed inspired by diabetic seizures. I actually dug the insane ’90s-ness of it all, an aesthetic that really stands out with a decade or so of distance. Can’t believe I haven’t seen this until now, sorta want to watch it again.
W.E. (2011). Madonna’s artsy ode to Wallis Simpson and conspicuous consumption was pretty roundly blasted by the critics, wasn’t it? Suprisingly, I found it interesting if a strangely verging on luxurious object porn (at times, it looked like an auction catalog). W.E. criss-crosses between the real drama of Britain’s Prince Edward (James D’Arcy) falling for commoner divorcee Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborogh), and a modern day Manhattanite/Wallis fan (Abbie Cornish) stuck in a dreary marriage. The latter’s story has the well-heeled woman being absorbed by the goods in the 1998 auction of Simpson’s personal effects while a flirty Sotheby’s security guard (Oscar Isaac) takes a special interest in her. I found the acting/drama in this film vaguely interesting if not too absorbing. What I thought was funny were the times when Madonna seemed to be visually referencing her own music videos – like “Cherish” (Edward and Wallis frolicking in the surf) or “Oh Father” (Wallis’ string of pears getting flown off her neck in dramatic slo-mo). There’s also times when she’s basically copying the style of Sofia Coppola part and parcel. Still, I enjoyed Risenborogh’s performance as Wallis (the same can’t be said for the vacant-faced Cornish) – she emerges here as a steel-nerved, no-nonsense chick who won’t take guff from nobody. Also an opportunist and a lady who is hung up on her own celebrity – a lot like Madonna, no?