Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

04 September 2017

Free Old Hollywood Cinema Online

I got in a mood for really old cinema last week, and I've been watching a lot of movies from the years 1927 to 1935. Many of these films are available on YouTube or somewhere else, and there are some great old films with excellent performances among this group. All of the ones I watched were nominated for Oscars, and sometimes I was baffled by the nominations (as indeed I often am now), but there were some very good movies, nonetheless.

Condemned! is a 1929 melodrama about a French thief, played by Ronald Colman, who is shipped off to a prison colony in an Africa jungle. He gets put to work as the warden's butler, however, and he and the warden's wife fall in love. So, naturally, he plans an escape. Ronald Colman is a great deal of fun in this, and he was nominated for Best Actor. This category, let me just say, from 1927 to 1935 at least was a bunch of nonsense. Not always, of course, but frequently. Some of the actors getting nominated for performances are doing fun work, but they're not really having to do much acting. Many of them aren't even carrying their films. What it looks like to me is that the studios wanted to push particular actors as important, as talented, as sexy, and so they put their weight behind particular performances.

In any case, Condemned! has its good elements. There is a pretty great swamp chase sequence and I really liked the stuff on the boat in the first five minutes of the movie. But the second act is all love and nonsense, and it doesn't focus nearly enough on the wife's terror and anguish to be actually affecting. The point of this movie, however, was to sell Colman as a leading man, and this works marvelously.

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The Affairs of Cellini is, if possible, an even sillier Best Actor nomination. Not that this film isn't delightful. It is! It is a farce set in the Cinquecento in Florence. In this fun film, Fredric March plays Benevenuto Cellini, the great Florentine goldsmith, is a kind of hot-tempered Casanova who is killing men who fight with him and seducing women whenever he can. The other main characters are the Duke and Duchess of Florence (Frank Morgan and Constance Bennett), who are both hilarious and delightful. The Duke and Duchess are each attempting to have affairs with different people (the Duchess with Cellini, of course), and so they try to trick and confuse one another by playing various pranks and making ridiculous decisions. It might seem crazy for a studio to spend all the money one needs for a 16th century set, costumes, and props just to do a film version of what is obviously a stage farce, but the whole thing worked splendidly.

What is sort of crazy is that when it was over, I thought: they nominated Fredric March for Best Actor for this!? But then I checked and they hadn't nominated March; they nominated Frank Morgan! Even crazier. Morgan was an excellent actor, but almost always worked as a supporting comedian. In 1933 and 1934, however, Morgan was playing leading men, and so perhaps the studio was interested in pushing him as a romantic lead at this point in his career. This is a nomination that honestly makes no sense without studio politics, but I am glad it happened, because The Affairs of Cellini is really fun stuff. Constance Bennett is perfect in this, and I've always thought of Fredric March as a very serious actor, but he is excellent in this farce and funny as hell.

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Combining my astonishment at both Fredric March and undeserved Best Actor nominations, March's first Best Actor nomination is for a film version of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family re-titled as The Royal Family of Broadway. I saw this play many many years ago with Kate Mulgrew and the great Marian Seldes. It was a delight. There were live dogs onstage and the comedy was absurd and delightful. The part played by Fredric March is definitely a supporting part (this was before Best Supporting Actor existed as a category). March is fun, and he once again acquits himself well as a comedian in a great part, but his nomination really does surprise me.

It is even more surprising since The Royal Family of Broadway is not very funny. Ina Claire, who play's the film's lead, is far too serious in her part, and so the film feels far more sober than it is supposed to be, perhaps even tragic. This was probably what the filmmakers (George Cukor and Cyril Gardner) wanted, but it was not what I wanted from this old gem of a farce.

Fredric March is wondering why everyone else in the movie is so serious.

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Alfred Werker's The House of Rothschild is a very interesting document from 1934. It stars George Arliss, whom I've really begun to love, and the film is about the rise of the Rothschild family of bankers during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. What is most fascinating about the movie is that it is clearly a bit of pro-Jewish propaganda designed to combat 1930s anti-Semitism. This is explicitly its subject matter. It is also about the way that the Rothschilds helped England by funding its wars in Europe. In other words, the film is a kind of The London Merchant 200 years later.

I will confess to enjoying this film rather thoroughly. The final sequence of the movie is in color, which was a wonderful surprise, and as I say George Arliss is an actor whom I have begun to love. I had thought this movie was impossible to find for many years, so watching it recently was a real treat for me.