Saturday, December 31, 2011
Blues in the Night ranks as one of the more enjoyable Warner Brothers melodramas of the 1940s. Silly and overblown at times, but engrossing nonetheless. Richard Whorf (above, left) heads a mid-level cast as jazz pianist Jigger Pine, a regular guy with a quartet that includes wormlike Elia Kazan, hulking Peter Whitney and young pup Billy Halop. The trio are at a crossroads. A scuffle with a belligerent customer at the dive where they’re playing lands them in jail, prompting them to stick with the noncommercial blues-influenced style they love. They travel to New Orleans to meet with trumpeter Jack Carson, who is married to lovely singer Priscilla Lane. The group form a swell combo, riding the rails and playing wherever they can to get a decent meal. Eventually they befriend gangster Lloyd Nolan, who leads them to a New Jersey dive where sad sack Wallace Ford and hard-bitten singer Betty Field (who is amazing in this) work. The story gets very complex from there, helped along by some eye-popping montages from the uncredited Don Siegel. I love the “traveling across America” montage and the “I hate these singing lessons” montage. The “I’m going crazy” montage is a pip, as well.
Joyce Compton appears in the film's first five minutes as a blonde patron in the seedy bar where Wharf's band is playing. Although Joyce's character is seen enjoying the jazzy tunes, her drunk dancing partner (played by Matt McHugh, brother of W.B. character actor Frank McHugh) is annoying the band with his persistent requests for "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles". His pestering causes a barroom brawl which prompts Wharf & Co. to go and ply their trade in New Orleans. Joyce is quite cute in this tiny role. It's not very indicative of the more substantial parts she was doing at this time in movies like Bedtime Story and Sky Murder, however.
In 2008, Warner Bros. released Blues in the Night in a nicely packaged DVD with several bonus cartoons and musical shorts that utilize the famous Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer title song. It is available (cheap!) at Amazon.com here.
Thursday, October 20, 2011
“Pre Code Shirley Tempe” might be the best description for the heated Southern drama Lena Rivers, which recently came out on DVD under its reissue title The Sin of Lena Rivers. The film focuses on elfin actress Charlotte Henry playing a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who bears the stigma of illegitimate parentage. Henry’s Lena Rivers is raised by her grandmother (Beryl Mercer doing her usual kindhearted mama thing) after he mother dies in childbirth. After the grandfather dies in a boating accident, the duo are invited to live with a rich uncle in their relatives’ plush Kentucky mansion. The girl doesn’t fit in with the hoi polloi, preferring the company of the servants, but one neighbor (James Kirkwood) has a strange bond with the girl — even gifting her with a wild horse that only she can tame. As it turns out, the neighbor is the girl’s father and her ability to turn the horse into a racing champion is what will endear her to the others. A rather sweet film that is marred somewhat by its condescending attitude towards black people (Henry even observes that they’re “like children” when she spies a group of them relaxing and singing). Charlotte Henry was best known for playing Alice in the flop 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland; here she is merely okay.
In a good-sized role, Joyce Compton appears as the vixenish Southern belle who gets jealous when Charlotte Henry comes between her and her beau (Morgan Galloway). Her scenes are worth a peek in this otherwise routine, overly predictable outing.
The DVD for Lena Rivers is a typical Alpha Home Video outing with scratchy picture and muffled sound quality. The Spring 2011 release can be bought at Amazon.com here.
Saturday, October 1, 2011
Was it the blonde hair? Joyce got another chance to play a temptress in Sing, Sinner, Sing, a 1933 production from the budget-level studio Majestic.
Sing, Sinner, Sing is a rather ordinary pre-Code drama based a the real life fraças between singer Libby Holman and her husband, tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds, who was found shot to death under mysterious circumstances in their apartment. Actress Leila Hyams plays the Holman stand-in, a torch singer who shares a stormy romance with gambling ship captain Paul Lukas. She escapes his clutches with a wealthy playboy (Don Dillaway), but after they marry she finds that her new husband is carrying on with a hotsy-totsy blonde — and that's where Joyce Compton comes in. Probably the best reason to see this hoary drama would be Leila Hyams, who is attractive and somewhat fragile in a way that reminds me of the slightly later Virginia Bruce. She also sings a few numbers in an agreeable (apparently non-dubbed) low voice. The story is pretty blah, with lousy turns from Lukas and Dillaway. The production is moderately nice for a low-budget picture, indulging in the usual settings of shipboard, nightclub, and penthouse (on sets probably borrowed from the big studios). This kind of material has been done much better in several Warner Bros. potboilers of the era — only die-hard Pre Code devotees would glean anything worthwhile from this.
Sing, Sinner, Sing debuted on DVD in a 2009 Alpha Home Video release. Like most Alpha product, the picture is scratched up, the sound is muddy and there are zero extras. It's better than nothing, however! Buy at Amazon.com here.
Monday, September 5, 2011
Kid Galahad is something of a gangster/boxing/romantic melodrama mishmash that somehow works thanks to the assured direction of Michael Curtiz and a phalanx of regulars from the Warner Bros. acting stable. Edward G. Robinson stars as a tough boxing manager with Bette Davis as his longtime gal. The two take notice of a swift-handed hotel bellhop (Wayne Morris) and groom him into a boxing ring champ. Davis' character Fluff finds herself romantically drawn to Morris, but Morris winds up taking a shine to Robinson's kid sister (Jane Bryan). This angers the protective Robinson so much that he decides to engineer a fight sure to put the young pugilist in a body cast. While the script ventures into overly familiar territory, this film ends up being a winner due to great work by Robinson and Davis, along with several stirring, realistic fight scenes.
Joyce Compton appears about 20 minutes into the film as a hanger-on at the huge party thrown in Edward G. Robinson's hotel suite. She plays a daffy blonde placing a long distance telephone call to Atlanta, a one-sided conversation that gets interrupted by prankster Robinson. It's a brief, funny bit.
A solidly entertaining title but not the first thing one thinks of with Davis or Robinson, Kid Galahad has had a spotty home video history. After decades of TV purgatory under the silly title The Battling Bellhop, it was issued on VHS in the '90s (with its real title restored!). The movie then made its DVD bow on the Warner Gangsters Collection, Vol. 4 in 2008. The DVD itself is a nifty package with vintage shorts, trailers and audio commentary. The set can be purchased at Amazon.com here.
Saturday, August 13, 2011
Rhythm in the Clouds was another modest-budgeted musical that Joyce Compton briefly appeared in as comedy relief from all the (rather dull) singing and dancing. The story follows pretty blonde songwriter Patricia Ellis, who makes an impulsive decision to crash a well-known songwriter's apartment — submitting her own compositions as collaborations with the better-known but oblivious man. Neighbor William Hull is annoyed with the noisy Ellis living next door, but faster than you can say "unbelievable coincidence" he is selected to be the lyricist on her next would-be hit song (which gets a gala premiere on a popular local radio show). The song is a hit, and love blooms for the once-quarreling duo.
Joyce contributes a small bright spot to this otherwise forgettable film as the secretary at the radio station where Ellis and Hull work. She played a lot of snappy steno gals around this time; Three Smart Girls (1936), Under Your Spell (1936), Rhythm in the Clouds (1937), Women Are Like That (1938) and Going Places (1938) all had Joyce handling the steno pad, usually as some wealthy exec's Gal Friday.
Rhythm in the Clouds has slipped into public domain and is easily viewable both online and on disc. It can be seen or downloaded at the Internet Archive here. In 2009, Alpha Home Video released this film on DVD paired with another b-musical, Sitting On The Moon (which coincidentally also has Joyce in the cast). It can be purchased at Amazon.com here.
Saturday, July 30, 2011
The Edward G. Robinson actioner Manpower has a strangely magnetic pull on me; I first saw it in the early ’90s on one of my local UHF outlets’ pre-TCM version of the “Late Late Show,” then jumped when the film finally became available on DVD via the Warner Archive. Part of its appeal it that, although it’s not an especially standout film in any particular area, it has a bit of something for everything mashed together in a way that somehow comes together beautifully. Robinson plays a power line worker who shares his dangerous vocation with a bunch of rowdy buddies which include Alan Hale, Frank McHugh (who does his signature nasal laugh a few times), Ward Bond, and best friend George Raft. Robinson is something of a big brother to the crew and takes it upon himself to aid the daughter of an elderly co-worker who dies in an accident. The daughter is an exotic beauty and ex-con played by Marlene Dietrich, whom the earnest Robinson falls for despite cynical pal Raft’s knowledge that she belongs in the sleazy clip joint where she sings and dances for tips. Seeing it for the fourth or so time, I can see that the ending is rather ludicrous, but otherwise it’s a pip that just oozes with 1940s verve. Part of that verve lies in the camaraderie that director Raoul Walsh sets up with Robinson and his onscreen buddies; all that onscreen clowning looks kind of obnoxious, but it’s also spontaneous and real (and strangely not common in studio-bound pictures from this era). Walsh also has a good eye for interesting setups and places, with scenes in a nightclub, hospital, dressing room, hash joint and even a department store ladies’ fashion section brimming with flavor. It’s a swell picture, all right!
Although Joyce Compton was slumming in bit parts around this period (her funny, brief scene in Ziegfeld Girl is a good example), with Manpower she has a great turn here as Scarlett, a bubbly nightclub hostess who shares a workplace with Dietrich's character. She and Eve Arden (as Dolly, another clip joint lady) are oddly cast as hotsy-totsy gals, but they both have a genial appeal as the supportive friends that Dietrich turns to for advice and comfort. For such a testosterone-heavy flick, the three women hold their own. They even get a rather subdued scene to themselves, a nice break from all that macho rowdiness.
As I mentioned above, Manpower made a belated home video debut with the Warner Archive made-to-order DVD edition in 2010. Buy at Amazon.com here.
Saturday, June 25, 2011
Joyce Compton's exposure in the screwball classic The Awful Truth led to a series of supporting roles in big-budget films for the actress, often playing the leading lady's best friend. The splashy, nostalgic Fox musical Rose of Washington Square was one example: Joyce appears here as Peggy, the perky pal of Alice Faye's sorta-based-on-Fanny-Brice Broadway musical comedy star, Rose Sargent.
Rose of Washington Square is a typically handsome Fox production, a frothy and historically suspect period vehicle for the warmly appealing Faye. As a singer rising to fame in 1910s New York, she gets wooed by Tyrone Power as a smooth cad with a passing resemblance to Fanny Brice's second husband, Nicky Arnstein. This was a lighthearted and fun movie first and foremost, one made momentarily uncomfortable by Al Jolson playing himself in blackface makeup. Fifth-billed Joyce appears sporadically throughout the picture whenever Faye needs a shoulder to cry on; she even gets to share a dramatic scene with Jolson. Most of the film’s musical sequences are straightforward stage performances, nicely gimmick free. Faye and a chorus of dancers doing amazing things with cigarettes in the title number is one of those wonderful, non-p.c. moments that one can only find in the world of black and white movies. Turn off your brain and enjoy.
Rose received an overdue DVD release in 2008, in an edition that included rare outtake footage as a special bonus. Buy at Amazon.com here.
Saturday, June 18, 2011
1936's Sitting on the Moon is one of several "poverty row" genre films Joyce Compton made a small contribution to. A brief and airy musical, Sitting chronicles the star-crossed romance of songwriter Roger Pryor and appealing singer Grace Bradley. Bradley's career is on the outs when Pryor pens a jaunty melody for her (the title tune, repeated ad nauseam) which lands the woman a featured vocalist gig on a top radio hour. She becomes a star while he lands in obscurity, until another song and complications involving a gold-digging hussy (Joyce Compton!) change things around for the hapless guy. On the whole, slight and forgettable stuff which benefits from nice Art Deco production design and a pleasing title tune.
It's interesting to note that this is one of the earliest productions for Republic Pictures. Along with sister companies Monogram and PRC, Republic would become the source for several eclectic parts Joyce would do throughout the '40s. Sitting on the Moon is typical: Joyce appears for only a few minutes as the seductive blonde who is eventually revealed as the secret wife of Roger Pryor (pictured above). How will he get out of this one?
Sitting on the Moon is one of those easily available movies that seem to appear on every vintage musical DVD set in existence. It's also viewable online at Archive.org. In 2009, Alpha Home Video issued the film as the bottom half of a musical double feature DVD, paired with Rhythm in the Clouds (another poverty row film with an appearance by Joyce!). Buy at Amazon here.
Saturday, May 28, 2011
Melodramatic intrigue meets down 'n dirty truck driving in director Raoul Walsh's They Drive By Night, a typically energetic Warner Bros. production from 1940. The film follows truckers George Raft and Humphrey Bogart as they deal with punishing hours and low pay hauling produce on all-night drives. Ann Sheridan adds a salty cynicism as the waitress whom Raft takes a shine to. Although enjoyable, this is truly a movie with a split personality. It begins as a gritty working-class melodrama of the type Warners did so well, but then the latter half veers into overheated murder mystery with the arrival of Ida Lupino as the scheming wife of the trucking company boss (Alan Hale). Lupino's big courtroom scene is campy beyond belief, but it only detracts slightly from what is an exciting corker of a movie.
Joyce Compton appears in They Drive By Night's second half as the ditsy girlfriend of Raft and Bogart's fellow driver, played by Roscoe Ates (when Ates declares that she's worth a million bucks, she replies "and just as hard to get."). She's appealing as ever and holds her own against her more famous co-stars in a role that is strangely unbilled, despite its decent size. The following year, Raoul Walsh, George Raft and Alan Hale would re-team on another gritty Warners melodrama, Manpower — with a certain cute "dumb blonde" actress also participating.
They Drive By Night was given a nice DVD treatment by Warner Home Video in 2003 with a new "making of" featurette and a vintage Warner Bros. short called Swingtime in the Movies added as extras. Buy at Amazon.com here.
Saturday, May 14, 2011
Behind the Mask counts among the handful of films Joyce Compton did for the budget Monogram studio in the 1940s — whether she was a signed contract player there remains to be seen. Monogram's offerings spanned several genres including Westerns, Romances, Musicals and Film Noir Melodrama. Solid, modest entertainment was the hallmark of their best product, but even the lousiest of Monogram pictures (and trust me, there's plenty) had a scrappy charm.
Behind the Mask was the second of three Monogram productions starring popular radio character The Shadow. What sounds like a promising, gritty drama going in, however, ends up a strange, grimy little film that awkwardly injects comedy into an otherwise unremarkable whodunit. The story concerns the murder of a blackmailing newspaper reporter. Witnesses believe it was the Shadow who committed the deed; the Shadow's alter ego Lamont Cranston (Kane Richmond, sort of a poor guy's Phillip Terry) must prove otherwise with the help of his daffy girlfriend Margo Lane (Barbara Read). Having never heard a radio ep of The Shadow, I can't tell how much fidelity this film has to the source material. The film is an OK time waster whose one (tiny) distinction is Read's chucking of all demure femininity in a proto-Lucille Ball turn.
Joyce appears briefly as a flirty nightclub employee attempting to rope Cranston into a sting operation. She does her best, but the role is typical of the diminishing parts she was taking as her career was fading. Behind the Mask spent years not being available on any home video format, but it has recently turned up as a Netflix Watch Instantly offering.
Friday, April 29, 2011
In the same year that Joyce Compton made a splash supporting Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, she marked time in the shoestring-budgeted Small Town Boy. Here Joyce plays a girl named Molly Summers, sweetie-pie girlfriend of Stuart Erwin's title character. Erwin's Henry Armstrong is a bumbling sap who works in an insurance office run by Joyce's domineering uncle (Clarence Wilson). He's also suffering through a turbulent home life with a nagging mother (Clara Blandick), indifferent dad (Jed Prouty) and ne'er-do-well brother (James Blakeley) - so it comes as a pleasant surprise when he finds a crisp thousand dollar bill under a stubborn horse's hoof. Erwin does the honest thing by advertising his find in the local paper, offering the bill to anyone who can supply the serial number. This causes even more trouble in the Erwin household, and when the bill is misplaced it leads to a comic chase all across town.
Scripted and directed by Glenn Tryon (father of actor-turned-novelist Tom Tryon), this is an unexceptional comedy with a few bright, appealing scenes that are reminiscent of the Hal Roach shorts of the same vintage. Erwin is once again typecast as a well-meaning doofus, one whose charm eventually wins us over. The scene with him dealing simultaneously with a screaming baby and an uncooperative horse is a gem. Compton's role is that of the usual "girlfriend" type, but she seems to relish playing a relatively smart woman for once. It's a cute, sweet little flick.
Small Town Boy received a DVD release from Alpha Home Video (a.k.a. Oldies.com) in early 2011. As with other Alpha releases, the disc showcases a scratchy but watchable print with zero supplemental material - but at least the package has a nice cover design that uses elements from the original film poster (below). Buy at Amazon.com here.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Under 18 is a great, lesser-known example of the prototypical Warner Bros. Pre-Code drama. In the film, pretty Marian Marsh stars as a young woman from the slums of New York trying to make ends meet with her recently widowed mother (Emma Dunn). Although she is dating a sweet delivery truck driver (Regis Toomey), witnessing the stormy relationship of her sister (Anita Page) and her lazy gambler of a husband (Norman Foster) has made her cynical about love and marriage. Working as a seamstress at a local fashion house, Marsh is drafted into a modeling job and meets a slimy millionaire (Warren William in the first of many "heel" roles) who invites the comely girl up to his penthouse. Although she is turned off by the way the models in her workplace have become rich mens' mistresses, a desperate turn for her sister prompts Marsh to re-think the man's offer.
Despite the film's salacious title, Under 18 is actually quite a gritty and compelling drama which is given spiffy direction by Warners stalwart Archie Mayo. Marian Marsh, coming off a well-received debut opposite John Barrymore in 1930's Svengali, does an excellent job as the cynical heroine. She might be a bit soft, however, which might explain why she didn't get more starring parts at Warner's (she's a bit like MGM ingenue Madge Evans, with more bite). The film makes great use of the Warner backlot, and sports an excellent Art Deco set design in the form of William's luxe rooftop pool. It moves along efficiently, with only debit being an abrupt, impossibly happy ending.
Joyce Compton appears briefly in a couple of scenes as one of the chatty models at the fashion house where Marsh works. It's interesting to see her in this period, fresh off the Fox studio's ill-advised attempt to mold her into a glamour puss. She's part glamour puss here, also, but one can see the beginnings of the appealing character actress she would evolve into as the 1930s went along. Oddly enough, she gets sixth billing here, well ahead several other actors with more sizeable roles (like Paul Porcasi as Marsh's boss).
Under 18 used to be somewhat hard to find, viewable only when Turner Classic Movies happened to schedule a Marian Marsh or Warren William film fest. In 2010, it received a welcome DVD release via the Warner Archive made to order program. Once a gem, always a gem!
Saturday, March 5, 2011
Go Into Your Dance was Al Jolson’s final star vehicle at Warner Brothers, and the only film in which he co-starred with his then-wife Ruby Keeler. As far as Al goes, he delivers a surprisingly subdued performance here (who knew?), and the relative lack of black-faced hamminess makes it a better bet to modern viewers. Here he plays an eccentric former Broadway star who lives exiled in Mexico. Al’s snappy sister (Glenda Farrell, always terrific) persuades him to go back to work, a situation where he is so emboldened he opens a nightclub funded with shady gangster money. At some point, he also deals with a sweet dancer (Keeler) who is stuck on him but doesn’t know quite how to express it. This is a typically predictable yet super-slick outing with a lively cast and a few polished, Busby Berkely-ish numbers (particularly “A Quarter To Nine”). Ruby Keeler is cute as always and rises to the occasion despite her shortcomings in the acting department; singer Helen Morgan actually outshines the leading lady as a salty gangster’s gal. There’s also the delightful Patsy Kelly as an eager vaudevillian who keeps crossing paths with Jolson.
Joyce Compton receives billing in the opening credits. While Joyce did several musicals in her prime and certainly would be at home in this one, what's unusual here is that she's nowhere to be seen in the actual film (and I kept my eyes peeled for her!). The Internet Movie Database lists her role as "showgirl in cafe." The only part fitting that description is a hot-tempered dancer who speaks with Jolson in an early bit set in a Mexican nightclub (see screen shot below). Although the actress bears a passing resemblance to our Joyce, it's not her. Perhaps Joyce was (improbably) cast as a Mexican, then the role was recast before they could alter the credits? If anybody could help me with this mystery, I'd love to hear an explanation. Al Jolson and Joyce would eventually work together in 1939's Rose of Washington Square.
Although it was issued on laserdisc in the early 1990s, Go Into Your Dance has been somewhat hard to find over the years. Warner Archive finally released the film on DVD in 2009.