Freaks. Directed by Tod Browning. Surely one of the most unusual films ever released by MGM, this drama about love, greed and revenge among members of a circus sideshow has long been considered a classic of the pre-Code era. Harry Earles, one of the more prominent little people working in Hollywood at the time, stars as Hans, a circus performer who falls in love with the normal-sized aeralist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova, who often played a seductress). Cleopatra’s betrayal of Hans, including a murder plot planned with strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), does not end the way either one expects, to put it mildly. The cast also features studio regulars Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Roscoe Ates and Rose Dione as other sideshow workers. Some of the other “freaks” in the cast are notable as well, including Daisy Earles (Harry Earles’ younger sister), who gives a heartbreaking performance Hans’s fiancée, Frieda, as well as little person Angelo Rossitto, “half boy” Johnny Eck and conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Director Browning, most famous for the landmark 1931 horror film Dracula, certainly had a niche. In Freaks he shows a more homegrown kind of horror. At least this film has a moral center, compassion and heart. You won’t soon forget the ending.
Man Wanted. Directed by William Dieterle. Kay Francis is sometimes relegated to a lesser status amongst the other “strong women” of the 1930s like Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. Francis deserves her place in the pantheon of great leading ladies from Hollywood’s Golden Age. 1932 was a banner year for her: she also made the classic Lubitsch romantic comedy Trouble in Paradise, the romantic comedy Jewel Robbery and the Oscar-winning romantic drama One Way Passage. Man Wanted gives Francis the opportunity to play a modern businesswoman, a magazine editor who hires a male secretary (David Manners – he’s most famous for playing John Harker in Dracula); Francis falls for Manners, thus causing various romantic situations and blunders. The film has some truly wonderful moments, barely feeling dated at all. Popular character actors like Una Merkel, Andy Devine and Claire Dodd add to the fun. If you’re looking for a delightful hour-long romantic comedy, this one’s an excellent choice.
Movie Crazy. Directed by Clyde Bruckman. It’s easy to write off Harold Lloyd’s few talkies as being inferior to his many silent comedy jewels (like 1923’s Safety Last! and 1925’s The Freshman) since they haven’t been as widely praised by critics, but Movie Crazy is quite possibly his best movie of all. Lloyd plays a naive young man from a small town who goes to Hollywood and tries his darnedest to break into the movies. Naturally, a series of mishaps ensue. Constance Cummings co-stars as a kindly actress who becomes Lloyd’s love interest. Lest you think the film is all happiness and no conflict, the climax of the film involves one of the best knock-down drag-out brawls I’ve ever seen, lasting nearly ten minutes. Whether you’re a longstanding fan of Harold Lloyd or a newcomer to his oeuvre, you’re sure to love Movie Crazy, especially if you’re a fan of old movies and the moviemaking process. (If you need extra incentive, it’s my mother’s favorite movie.)
Murders in the Rue Morgue. Directed by Robert Florey. Personally I find this cult classic to be a much more engaging film than Bela Lugosi’s earlier triumph, Dracula. Although I’m sure Murders has its detractors, you cannot deny the beauty of its cinematography by the renowned Karl Freund. The influence of German Expressionism is apparent all throughout the film. The story, which tells of a mad scientist named Dr. Mirakle who kidnaps women and conducts experiments on them with ape blood, is based on an Edgar Allan Poe story. The couple in the film, played by forgotten ingénue Sidney Fox and the always-entertaining Leon Ames (prior to his character actor career), is generic but appealing. Arlene Francis, later famous for her TV work, has the most memorable scenes in the film as the unnamed “Woman of the Streets” who is picked up by Dr. Mirakle. In the Francis scenes Lugosi infuses his character with more intensity than I’d ever seen from him before, making the film-viewing all the more enjoyable. French-born director Florey had an erratic output in Hollywood, from the Marx Brothers comedy The Cocoanuts (1929) to the early Bette Davis vehicle Ex-Lady (1933) to the Peter Lorre horror film The Beast with Five Fingers (1946). His style is always interesting, though; for something especially different, try out his experimental short films The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra (1928) and Skyscraper Symphony (1929).
One Hour with You. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch (with some directorial assistance from George Cukor). Few people could possibly be immune to star Maurice Chevalier’s charm. When paired with Jeanette MacDonald in musicals, as Chevalier also was in The Love Parade (1929), Love Me Tonight (1932) and The Merry Widow (1934), he was nothing less than enchanting. One Hour with You, the second of their collaborations, was one of the eight films nominated for the 1932 Oscar for Best Picture, although that was the only nomination that the film received. The film’s synopsis is slight, but the soundtrack features such joyous songs as the title tune, “Oh, That Mitzi” and “What a Little Thing Like a Wedding Ring Can Do.” The film co-stars Genevieve Tobin, playing the family friend trying to lure Chevalier away from wife MacDonald, as well as support from the comic character actors Charles (“Charlie”) Ruggles and Roland Young. For those who are familiar with the risqué habits of saucy pre-Code films, you might be surprised to see a scene when Chevalier and MacDonald share a bed. It’s a brief moment, but it’s amusing.