Sunday, January 6, 2013

Now Playing: JAN. 6, 1933

At the Riverside in Milwaukee, Frank Capra before Capracorn: his fourth picture in as many years with Barbara Stanwyck, whom he made a star with 1930's Ladies of Leisure, and one of those conflicted Pre-Code pictures that implicitly criticize the taboo against miscegenation while bowing to its strictures.

Wrecking an empire may be an exaggeration, but that's what ballyhoo is for. Nils Asther follows in the footsteps of Warner (Charlie Chan) Oland as a Scandinavian passing for Asian, and while it would certainly have been better had Capra the courage to cast an actual Chinese actor as the tragic General Yen there's still some courage in this picture, even if it only goes as far as controversy in adapting a "hotly debated" novel.

At the Warner:

I saw this King Vidor film for Samuel Goldwyn last month. It has the producer's vaunted "touch," being slickly and tastefully made, but the Goldwyn Touch seems to sacrifice something essential to Pre-Code cinema. Cynara is mildly entertaining and well performed, but I emphasize the "mild" while steering those out for real Pre-Code meat or spice elsewhere.

Meanwhile, 1933 isn't even a week old and already Zasu Pitts has turned up twice. You can see Strangers of the Evening in some public-domain box sets. As the copy promises, it's an "old dark house" style comedy with Pitts in full nervous-Nellie mode. If you like that -- if you've seen it -- you'll like this.

At the Wisconsin:

Speaking of racial insensitivity not only does Warner Oland do his Chinese act again here, but Helen Hayes, Lewis Stone and M-G-M's all-purpose ethnic Ramon Novarro do the squint as well -- and there's a minstrel show on stage! Maybe it's OK because these are real black people -- but look at that ad art! This program definitely sets the political-incorrectness standard for the year so far.

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