Barbara Stanwyck is one of those actresses who makes any film worth seeing. I don’t know anyone who disagrees, yet A Lost Lady (Warner Bros, 1934) is inexplicably overlooked. It’s not an important picture but I found it entirely satisfying. Stanwyck is in top form, and Frank Morgan is warmly effective as an older man who falls in love with her after tragedy turns her into a recluse. He woos and wins her but she is still vulnerable to the advances of Lyle Talbot and especially Ricardo Cortez. A Lost Lady is very loosely based on a novel by Willa Cather, who was reportedly so upset about this adaptation that she added language to her will forbidding further screen treatments. (Her book had been filmed more faithfully in 1924 with Irene Rich in the title role.) The screenplay by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola is compact but never seems rushed; it’s hard to believe so much incident could take place in just 61 minutes. Warner Bros. workhorse Alfred E. Green gives the actors room to breathe life into their characters. The film is available from Warner Archive and is well worth seeing.
Kino Lorber has released three of Gary Cooper’s best starring vehicles of the 1930s in exquisite high-definition transfers. They all take place in exotic locales and do not represent an enlightened view of the world, but must be taken in the context of their time. I haven’t seen The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) since I was an adolescent and was relieved to find it is just as much fun as I remember. A precursor to Gunga Din, it presents Cooper and Franchot Tone as British soldiers stationed in India. Their friendly rivalry is transformed when they join forces to protect a callow new recruit (Richard Cromwell) who happens to be the son of their commander. A lighthearted Boys’ Adventure yarn with memorable roles for C. Aubrey Smith, Guy Standing, and Douglass Dumbrille, this is rip-roaring fun from start to finish… just not politically correct. Bengal Lancer was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director (Henry Hathaway), and Best Screenplay (credited to Waldemar Young, John L. Balderston and Ahmed Abdullah, based on an adaptation of Francis Yeats-Brown’s novel by Paramount stalwarts Grover Jones and William Slavens McNutt).
The General Died at Dawn (1936) is a stylish drama directed by Lewis Milestone and exquisitely photographed by Victor Milner. It doesn’t hurt to have two exceptionally beautiful people in the leading roles: Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carroll (fresh from The 39 Steps). Their complicated relationship is set against the tumult of Shanghai, where Cooper tries to undermine the latest moves of a ruthless Chinese warlord (Akim Tamiroff, who gets away with the part because he says so little). I used to think highly of the film, but it seems like much ado about nothing in my latest viewing. At least it looks great.
Beau Geste (1939) is a slick remake of the superior silent film from 1926 and worth watching in this Kino Lorber release to listen to a lively and informative commentary track by William Wellman, Jr. and Wellman expert Frank Thompson. They never run out of interesting things to say. Cooper leads a strong cast including Robert Preston, Ray Milland, Susan Hayward, J. Carrol Naish, Broderick Crawford, a young Donald O’Connor, and the hiss-worthy Brian Donlevy as Sergeant Markoff.
Speaking of interesting things to say, film noir guru Alan K. Rode provides a smart, fact-filled guide to Universal’s Black Angel (1946) on the recent release from Arrow Academy. Dan Duryea, who specialized in slimy villains around this time, not only headlines the cast but gets to play a good guy for a change. June Vincent is a serviceable leading lady and puts over two new songs, while Peter Lorre notches up the interest level every time he sets foot on camera. Roy Chanslor’s screenplay is based on a novel by the incredibly prolific Cornell Woolrich, and Roy William Neill, best known for the dozen Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies, makes the most of it. This was his cinematic swan song. (He died at the end of the calendar year.)
I love ferreting out obscure movies from Hollywood’s golden age and I thought I’d found a gem in Man of the People (1937), an MGM B picture offering Joseph Calleia a rare starring role. It starts out strong, with Calleia as an Italian-American lawyer who accepts the patronage of district boss Thomas Mitchell—at his peril. The cast is full of familiar faces and Florence Rice is a likable leading lady. Best of all, there is a courtroom scene where our ethnic hero cooks up a defense that would have Perry Mason’s head spinning. But Frank Dolan’s screenplay bites off more than it can chew in 76 minutes and wraps up in an abrupt and unsatisfying manner. What a shame. If you’re still curious you can check it out on Warner Archive.